PHOTO BY LUIS JAVY DIAZ
Nancy Carol Willis, shown here in her studio in Middletown, assembled more than 100 pieces for “Vision and Voice,” which opens March 6.
“I remember an incident from 1961…” says Nancy Carol Willis. Willis, then an adolescent who lived near Penny Hill, had a neighbor, a 60-something bachelor artist, William D. White, who lived in an adobe-like shack without electricity. The near-recluse was beloved by neighborhood children. Willis was one of many who spent hours drawing and painting at White’s home. On that particular day, he appeared to be in a foul mood— an apparently rare state. “I asked him what was wrong,” Willis says. “Someone had asked him how to remove a mural in the Dover Post Office. He said, ‘With a wrecking ball.’ He’d considered it one of his best pieces.” White is the most famous Delaware artist you’ve never heard of. Willis, of Middletown, has been working hard for the past few years to change that. Her efforts bear fruit this month when the Biggs Museum of American Art in Dover presents “William D. White: Vision and Voice,” the first retrospective of his work. “I didn’t want to depart this world and leave him unknown if I could help it,” Willis says. “He deserves critical acclaim.” White (1896-1971) studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and, for a short time, with Brandywine School artist Gayle Porter Hoskins, a former student of the great Howard Pyle.
In the half-century between 1920 and his death in 1971, White created more than 700 illustrations and other works, including several public murals in Delaware. The span of White’s career saw great industrial advance, the Great Depression, war and widespread prosperity. Though linked to the Brandywine School, White rejected its philosophies and styles. His commercial paintings and illustrations celebrated the efforts of immigrant miners, other laborers and minorities who performed dangerous jobs for the improvement of the nation, making White one of the earliest artistic champions of the working class. “He went into mines, subway tunnels, New York skyscrapers, the Delaware Memorial Bridge,” Willis says. “He sought real life, nonfiction, an authentic experience.” Others of White’s creations portrayed the lives of the children who lived near him in North Wilmington, works made, it seems, for reasons all his own. Willis had spent many hours painting or doing calligraphy at White’s home and collecting objects to sketch while strolling with him in Bringhurst Woods. He encouraged her interest in art and her interest in nature. “This person was a very special person to me—and to a lot of neighborhood kids,” says Willis, a member of the Delaware Audubon board who has enjoyed a successful career as a writer, illustrator, artist and instructor. “You can’t possibly explain a person like William D. White in today’s context. People would think it was creepy. But his home was a magical place.”
White’s young friends had no idea what his adult life was like, so when he died in 1971, Willis, then a student at the University of Delaware, tried to learn more. She went in search of his works. The hunt proved difficult. Unlike other Brandywine School illustrators, who were widely known through popular literature and high-circulation magazines like Scribner’s and The Saturday Evening Post, most of White’s works were published in trade magazines for mining-related companies in the West and Wilmington-based Hercules Powder Co., which limited his audience and exposure. His lifestyle didn’t help. Friendly with his neighbors and local merchants, White, anything but a selfpromoter, lived a life of voluntary poverty inspired by Henry David Thoreau. The Internet finally changed Willis’s search. First, she found artwork posted in The Mineralogical Record and 17 paintings commissioned by the Phelps Dodge Corp., a mining concern in Arizona. Those discoveries led to works he created in Delaware through the Federal Arts Project, including the mural at the old Dover post office. Other White murals—one in the old state hospital at Farnhurst, one at Harlan Elementary School in Wilmington and one at the public water works in Wilmington, for example—had been destroyed, and no photographs of them have been found. The post office mural, though feared to have met the same fate, still exists, minus one panel. The building is owned by Wesley United Methodist Church in Dover, and the painting, “Harvest, Spring and Summer,” will be on view during “Vision and Voice.” “He’s a really high-quality artist in his own right,” says Ryan Grover, curator at the Biggs. “He stood shoulder to shoulder with other regional artists and Social Realists. But he also had a unique position and unique aesthetic that he lived, and that showed up in his work.”
Grover places White on par with important American Regionalists Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton. “Vision and Voice” was a natural for the Biggs, Grover says. It recently exhibited the works of Wilmington artist Edward Grant, a landscape painter who, as an art director at Hercules, had also been one of White’s main employers. White’s works were liquidated when the company was sold a few years ago —more of his art has been lost than found, it seems—so it is somewhat remarkable that Willis was able to assemble more than 100 pieces for “Vision and Voice.” With interest in American Scene painters on the rise, both she and Grover hope that White will finally find the audience he deserves and that owners of other White works will emerge. “It’s a rare opportunity when someone gets to introduce—or reintroduce—an unknown of at least regional importance,” Willis says. “I hope people will take extra notice of him, preserve the memory, preserve the work and love it enough to see it at a museum someplace,” Grover says, “hopefully the Biggs.”
“William D. White: Vision and Voice,” the first public exhibition of the artist’s works, will be on view at the Biggs Museum of American Art in Dover March 6-June 21.