An African American blog of politics, culture, and social activism.
Lester White: Painting Faces
By George Bayard III
GB When did you first discover that you had art talent or want to be an artist?
LW I was very young, about 5 or 6 when I’d see my brother Mark White draw cowboy and Indians, Western scenes and I wanted to copy him. My dad bought him an art pad so if I copied Mark, then maybe I would get a drawing pad of my own. He was my first and earliest influence. Also other family members on both sides were artists and a cousin, Franklin Hall did cartoons for Saturday Evening Post and Ebony Magazine.
GB How about in school, any teachers?
LW In the 6th grade my teacher, Kermit Diggs, recognized my talent and suggested that I enter a contest. I receive a certificate to study art the Reuben Daniels Center for Arts and Science for two years. That’s in Saginaw Michigan where I’m from. Then at Saginaw High school I started learning how to give images form and started to use paint and other mediums.
GB Is painting you primary medium?
LW I actually stared with pastels but fell in love with watercolors which lead to acrylic paints then finally oils. And yes I also like airbrush which I combine in a lot of my work.
GB How did you get here to Grand Rapids?
LW Well I had relatives who lived here and always asked me to come visit so I moved in 1998 because of the increased job and art opportunities. I continued to paint and stay consistent and eventually picked up clients.
GB That’s odd because when I moved here, Grand Rapidians only knew local artist Paul Collins. Not Bearden or Lawrence or any nationally recognized artists but they knew Paul because he promoted himself so well. How did you break through to find clients?
LW Whenever I was at work or in the park I’d draw and people would always ask me if I’ve met Paul then I got to meet him at his gallery and admired his work. People would compare our styles which was good for me. I set up booths at different festivals and events and did my airbrushing on tee shirts. They liked my portraits and the patrons just grew.
GB Yes I remember our gallery was one of the first to show and sell your artwork and folks really showed an interest in your art especially the portraits, which I feel is your strongest talent. How has your portraiture evolved?
LW I started to get some high profile clients after people saw my work. I did a painting for 3 time Olympic gymnast Dominique Dawes and tennis chpreviousampion Serena Williams, gospel star Rev. Marvin Sapp and his late wife Malinda, as well as boxing legend Floyd Mayweather and Bernie Mac before he passed and singer Monica.
GB Wow with those clients, if you were in LA or Atlanta you’d be retired by now. Portrait work is tough for famous clients because they want you to make them look better, younger or skim some pounds off. Yes?
LW Your right, painting portraits is very challenging so I try to nail it the first time, but the customer is always right and gets what they pay for.
GB Besides painting portraits, what other type of work do you like creating or even experimenting with?
LW I still do pencil renderings and my air brush work but I’d like to get back into pottery. I used to throw pots and use clay early in my career and I really liked it. But it takes space that I don’t have right now and the equipment is expensive.
GB Yes pottery is selling well now but it does cost a lot to produce. Making art and selling prints is more affordable. You’ve kept your prices pretty reasonable. How’s that working for you?
LW I am not a struggling artist but I probably could charge more for my work. I like to keep customers coming back and for them to be comfortable with their purchase that’s why I’m affordable right now.
GB Our gallery tries to get people to invest in art when an artist is young or up-and-coming before they peak and can demand higher prices. African American art has been criticized for being similar, kitschy and afrocentric. How have you broken out of that mold?
LW I’ve started using the painting knife to create abstract images and I also have got back into landscape artwork which I find more relaxing compared to portraits. Actually I’m selling more abstracts than my Afrocentic imagery. I still have a passion for art with a meaning like the pieces about Katrina I did and my ArtPrize piece did have a personal spiritual feeling. But now most of my work is driven by commissions. A winery wants me to a mural, which will be a challenge and you got me the commission for the new Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia.
Rastus “Serving This”
GB Yes that was a very interesting piece. Dr Pilgrim, the Museum founder, wanted a piece where Black stereotypes fight back. Talk about that image.
LW Well the image of Rastus, the Cream of Wheat guy wasn’t the problem. They wanted it rendered like a 1920s poster so I had to use watercolor and tempera which I hadn’t done in a while but working with it all came back and the piece caused me to think about its subtle message and might rise a bit of conversation.
GB That’s for sure. How do you balance art and life?
LW Right now I work a day job, raise my kids and do my artwork from home. I can see my self retiring from my job and just paint but that’s off in the distance a bit. My artwork gives me a little extra income but I’m burning the candle at both ends. But that is what artists do.
GB If someone wants a portrait or art or tee shirt and, I just heard you painted a Harley, where can they reach you?
LW Email me at email@example.com, website at www.lawdesignz.com or on Facebook where you can see my work and contact Bayard Art Consulting.
GB Thanks Lester, is there anything else?
LW For you younger artists, stay consistent with art if it’s your passion and further your education and you will be blessed to make a living from it.
Lester White attended Delta College University Center. He is a member of Chicago’s South Side Art Center and Grand Valley Artists Assoc. He has work at the Jim Crow Museum, Grand Rapids Public Libraries, Muskegon Museum of African American History and Lighthouse Full Life Center. He teaches classes at Salvation Army and gives thanks to God, family and his parents for his growing success.