There's one word that comes to mind after interviewing Franklin White: delight. That's not to say that he's all Pollyanna-ish or somehow unsubstantial. He's a very fine painter, and he's made a tremendous contribution to the community during his career as an artist and teacher. But there's no way around it—he is, quite simply, a delight to speak with. And it's clear that he takes simple and pure delight in painting and in the sensual nature of the materials.
Franklin grew up in Virginia and gives great credit to his teachers for setting him on his current path. No wonder then, that he became a teacher. And a good one. He's a Fulbright Scholar (2001) and the recipient of numerous grants and awards. His work has been shown in a wide array of group and one-person exhibitions in the Washington, DC area, and he was the subject of an award-winning video (For the Love of Paint) that was screened at the Museum of Modern Art (1994) as well as on PBS.
When selecting artists for the 50th anniversary interview series, we wanted to highlight the wide variety of applications that are possible with acrylics. We hoped that the artists would surprise us along the way. But Franklin was kind of a double whammy. Not only were we surprised by the scale and mass of the work, but we were knocked out by the sheer exuberance—the delight—with which Franklin has shown what can be done when the medium is pushed to the edge of the envelope. Yes, you can work more thickly than you can work with oil. But gallon upon gallon of paint and gel on a painting? As a painter, Franklin has developed a love affair with the tactile and the sensual. So what better way to explore that than, as he says, to just, "wallow in the gooey-ness of it."
Best of all, after receiving his BFA and then MFA from Howard University in Washington, DC, he taught for over 30 years, guaranteeing that his passion and love for the materials has spread into a new generation.
Is there a better legacy for an artist?
Liquitex: Your work is a great example of what's possible with a thick, heavy application of acrylic paint.
Franklin White: Yeah, everyone talks about those (large paintings made with acrylic squeezed from pastry bags). I still have the big ones. I mean, they're pretty cumbersome, getting them around. It was a lot of fun doing those. And the more fun I had painting, the more paint I used.
Liquitex: What brought you to where you are as an artist today? How's that for a wide-open question?
FW: I've been pretty lucky. There was never a question as to what I was going to do.
Liquitex: Why's that?
FW: Because I could always draw. Always. And I had very close relationships with my art teachers from, say, Junior High. I had a wonderful teacher in Junior High who was like a second mother. We always joked that she knew me better than my mother did. She came to my thesis show at Howard, and we kept a close friendship until she died in her 80s.
So I had good teachers, and I always took it very seriously. When it came time to go to college, I knew I would be doing something in art. I just didn't know what. I think I was interested in fashion design at one time, and when I came to Howard, I entered a poster contest and won. All the advanced Design students had entered, and the Freshman won.
Liquitex: So, you started thinking that you were going to go into perhaps the design area. How did you end up a painter?
FW: I had to declare a major. But I didn't like the fact that, in fashion design, you had to sew. I like designing the clothes, but the sewing part... I remember that my great aunt used to model clothes around Richmond, and she had one of my designs made up for me, and it was my first success. Anyway, at Howard they didn't have fashion, so I was going to be either a design major or a painting major. I chose painting, and it just stuck.
Liquitex: How did you first get turned on to acrylics?
FW: I did oil painting for many, many years and then, at some point, I didn't even have a studio, so I thought, "I'll paint in the bedroom and do acrylics in the winter, and when it gets warm, I'll open the windows and go back to oil." But I never went back to oils; I just stayed with acrylics.
Then I started exploring, learning more about the materials and all the things you can add to it. I was teaching at that time and working with the students, experimenting, and we just sort of learned a lot about the materials over the years. It was pretty obvious that I couldn't do with oil what I could do with acrylics. I started to work thick.
Liquitex: How so?
FW: I couldn't get the thickness I wanted with oil. I couldn't even embed stuff into it—foreign materials, like sand and buttons. It just wouldn't work. As an oil painter I used paint very thick and then realized I could get it even thicker with the acrylics. Then it just got out of hand. I started using mounds of it. I remember one of the paintings had about 15 gallons of gel.
Liquitex: Are you serious?
FW: Yep, I'd pile it on and then, it's like, "OK, let's pile a bit more on." I was doing it all by hand, mounding up the paint. It took forever. The I discovered a pastry bag and figured out that I could pipe it out that way and then manipulate it. That made things a lot quicker, and then I decided to have special tubes made, extra large. We took a regular standard open pastry bag, flattened it out and put it on the Xerox machine and blew it up progressively. That was my template.
Liquitex: Besides the pastry bag, you've had to develop some unique techniques to work with paint on this scale. What else have you used?
FW: Cooking is a hobby for me, so, hence the cooking utensils. Some of my painting spatulas are regular cooking utensils. And I've used masonry tools too. I would tell the students, "you know, some tools you can't find in a store, so you have to develop them yourself; whatever it takes to manipulate the material, you do it."
Liquitex: What are some of the more interesting tools you've developed?
FW: Well, I've got these gigantic masonry tools, for example. And palette knives only come in certain sizes, so I went to the hardware store and paint stores to get plastering or cement tools. I got big ones to be able to manipulate that much paint. On one, the handle was too small, and so the weight of the tool was wrong—I don't know why they put a tiny little handle on that great big tool—so I had a student make handles for me. He was a great sculpture student, and since a sculptor would understand the weight of these things, so I said, "take this and make it balance better for me."
So that kind of thing. We used forks and any and all kinds of things to manipulate the paint. When I taught painting, my students were always coming up with ideas and different ways of gouging into the paint, rakes, and whatever.
Liquitex: Pretty physical.
FW: It's fun mixing up large amounts of paint. It is physical, and you get a workout doing it. I've done staining, like Morris Lewis, but it's not the same as just wallowing in the gooey-ness of the paint. It's a different, different feeling.
Liquitex: Your work has a highly vigorous and effusive quality that seems to come out of a pure exploration of the elements of design, even though there's some imagery there, they really are about line, shape, color, and value.
Liquitex: Even more, they're about surface.
FW: Uh huh. But, really, I'm traditional.
Liquitex: What else is an important influence for you?
FW: Travel. And also, of course, my love of food. I could eat and drink my way through any country. I have a little camera, and I take it around, and I'm always recording stuff. I went to Amsterdam, and I saw this big hanging piece of meat (in a market), and I photographed it. I came back, and one of my student's father had a butcher shop. They had lamb hanging in the shop, and so I went and photographed all the lamb, and then I went to a slaughterhouse and photographed there. All of that turned into a painting of a hanging carcass of meat. When I came back from Amsterdam, I went to the supermarkets and photographed all of the fruit and vegetables and stuff like that. In Caracas, I photographed the market places and just, the color, anything that's colorful.
Liquitex: You began your career during the late 60s and 70s at a time in which the arts were seen as having the potential and the power to shape society. Do you see any remnants of that role for art as a vehicle for driving social change?
FW: I went to Howard University in the 60s, and we were very much involved in the Civil Rights Movement. In 1964, I did a painting called Freedom, which was the cover of the art catalog for that year. I also did a painting called Selma, which was during the time of the march from Selma, Alabama.
In 1967, I went to study at the Brooklyn museum, so I spent two years in New York and saw all those shows. Hair was on Broadway and all that. So, I came back to Washington, and I guess I brought some of that feeling back with me. But I don't see myself as a social commentator now. I'm more interested in the materials and visual beauty.
But yes, it can be (used for social change) by those who choose to use it. Being a black artists, some of that's going to come out. There is a certain amount of passion and emotion in the work that comes from that, maybe.
Liquitex: Social commentary can mean all sorts of different things.
FW: Absolutely. But I'm not an artist who would purposely go out and make a social comment. I do it in other ways, doing the civil kind of thing.
Liquitex: And teaching is an incredibly powerful contribution to the culture and community. You've recently retired from the Corcoran after more than 30 years of teaching. How's that feel?
FW: It's okay. I love and miss the kids. And I was a pretty good teacher, but I started teaching right out of grad school. I did an "Artist in Residence" here. Then I taught high school for a year, then at Georgetown and at Maryland College of Art and Design, and finally at the Corcoran. It was great; I had great students over the years.
I got a Fulbright, went to Venezuela and taught in Caracas for a year. When I came back, I decided that—as much as I loved teaching—I didn't want to do it anymore. I miss the paycheck, you know (laughing), but it's okay. I have more time for me. As one of my friends said, "you spent a third of your life studying, another third of your life teaching, and, now, the next third is for you. Do whatever you want." So I am.
Liquitex: Looking back over all those students, can you identify any way in which young people have changed?
FW: Hmmm, I don't think so. I remember when I taught in Venezuela, I had great students there, and I also had some lousy students too. You know, the good students are great all over the world, and the lousy students are lousy, and they'll give you the same excuses, no matter where they are.
I'd say they're the same, and the cream always rises to the top. A good student's a good student until the end of time. And I've been very lucky to have had great students over the years.
Liquitex: Some artists see teaching as a way of giving back to the community. Others prefer only to work and studiously avoid teaching. Is there a point in which working with the students can actually enhance your process as a painter?
FW: Absolutely. With 15 students working on the same project, you're going to get a multitude of ideas. They give you so many different possibilities, and I always encourage the students to share information. Nothing is sacred; if you see something that looks good, take it and make it yours. Share the information as well as the materials.
Liquitex: Were shared materials a kind of classroom mandate?
FW: Of course. There are a lot of products on the market. I made each student responsible for contributing 3 or more jars of some kind of gel or medium. So, with 15 kids in a class, you have a whole table full of assorted stuff for everyone to share. I was always learning something new about the materials and what you could do with them.
That's the one thing I'm frightened about in retirement, that I might lose some of that. But I've also gained, you know. You can't have everything.
Liquitex: So what's the most fun for you in your work?
FW: Painting is the easy part for me. The (preliminary) drawing is more difficult because you're making all the decisions about composition, color, and so on. So, translating that into paint is the most fun for me. You don't really have to think. You can have fun manipulating the material. Well, you do have to think, but not in the same way.
Liquitex: It's a different kind of thought.
FW: Completely different. And when you see those acrylic works of mine, it's really about the love of the material, the joy of working with paint.
Liquitex: So what's the biggest challenge?
FW: The big paintings. Getting them around with all that weight.
Liquitex: How heavy are some of them?
FW: It takes 3 or 4 people to move them.
Liquitex: No kidding!
FW: Also, the wall supports. You put a support on a wall, and the painting sits on that. You can't just hang it on the wall, you know.
Liquitex: If you could move a magic wand and invent a new material, or change any of our materials, what would you do? And I bet I can guess the answer.
FW: I'd create an acrylic gel or paint that would give me the same kind of body or thickness, without the weight.
Liquitex: No surprise there!
FW: Uh huh. A painting made with 15 gallons of gel or paint is a mighty heavy painting.
Liquitex: Is there one thing, one all important concept that you hope your students got from you?
FW: Experiment, have fun, be open, enjoy the materials. Don't take it too seriously, you know, I think that's important. Know your materials and enjoy them and have fun with them. When I was in Caracas, I was able to be pretty extravagant and give away lots of materials. We had a joke—the kids were saying, "Franklin's going to give us the bill after the class."
But they had a great time, and they learned that it's important to be comfortable with your tools. That's half the battle right there—if they relax, they can do anything.
Liquitex: That's a nice life lesson, isn't it?
FW: Yes, it is.