Otis White inks his pictures with Cubist precision and graphic-arts sensibilities. Some black-and-white, others popping with color, the stark images reflect his 34 years on the street as well as his peripatetic imagination, creativity that, unlike its owner, now has a home.
At 71, the Greenvillian is a published illustrator. “Oh, yeah, that do look good, don’t it?” he says, unwrapping a gift from the Emrys Foundation, which selected one of his pieces for the cover of its thirty-fifth annual Emrys Journal, published in April.
At the downtown library, where he works on his drawings, he sits across from Polly Gaillard, the literary organization’s administrator, who has wrapped his very own copy in silver paper with yellow, pink, and blue dots.
Cover to Cover // Otis White (above) crafts Cubist creations with ink, and his artwork adorns the cover of this year’s Emrys Journal. While White has spent years on the streets, his art reflects a commitment to creativity.
“Little Dot. You know. That cartoon girl,” he says, referring to the 1950s comic-book character.
He surprises you like that. He surprises you at first sight, too, with his four-inch cone of salt-and-pepper hair rising from his 6 feet, 4 inches. While he may be tall, his life’s been short on many things. He’s lived on the streets of San Diego and Oakland, California, Phoenix, Arizona, Las Vegas, and Nashville. About four years ago, he left Seattle. He became an artist at two years old, he says, after he got tossed down a 10-foot cellar and broke a hip.
“The characters he draws have a very strong sense of identity,” says Gaillard, a fine-art photographer. “There’s such a story in these. It’s not an emotional sort of thing, but there’s a specific characteristic to them. It talks to his imagination, his ability to think beyond current circumstances, to realize the value of creating—regardless.”
He colors many of his drawings. He tells Gaillard he even wants to brighten up his Journal copy. Perhaps his vivid ballpoint-pen hues, rather than just straight lines, more accurately reflect this man. Take his Jesus Making It Rain.
“I colored Jesus brown for black folks and peach-colored for white folks, pink, strawberry,” he says. “When Jesus got angry and turned over the tables in the temple, exchanging money, that’s why I colored him red, ’cause he was angry. That’s the color of anger. Blue: cool. Green: envy. Pink: passion.”
He imagines folks will appreciate his Emrys cover, though he’ll tell you he gets bored drawing; he’d rather play his guitar. But art is his home, always needing work. “In a sense, you don’t get that good, you just keep on.”
To purchase a copy of the 35th annual Emrys Journal, cover art by Otis White, visit emrys.org/bookstore.