Chicago-based artist Dwight White II had the life-affirming moment that only a few of us ever experience: witnessing his work impact someone in real-time.
He recalled that it had to be 2017 or ’18 when a boy no older than eight watched him paint a mural and started tearing up.
“I want to paint!” the kid yelled toward his mother as he watched White work on a wall in an alley.
When his mother asked why he was crying, again he declared, ‘I want to paint!”
White said he let the boy contribute to that mural by allowing him to pick out a spray can and leave whatever mark he needed to.
For World Art Day, we spotlight White, who has been leaving his own mark, whether on canvas or concrete, throughout Chicago and beyond. Yet, how he arrived at becoming a full-time artist resulted from another dream that got derailed.
From Gridiron to Canvas
What’s different about White’s journey is that just a few years before that moment with the admiring kid, he imagined himself making a different mark — on the gridiron.
White grew up in Houston, where football culture is as pervasive as Mariah Carey’s voice on the radio in December — it’s everywhere and everything. So football was what he loved, and he took that talent, along with an academic aptitude, and enrolled at Northwestern University.
At Northwestern, he played cornerback and was a valuable contributor on the field before an on-field injury dashed his hopes of playing professionally. As a result, he had to leave the team before his senior year.
But late in his junior year, he started putting paint on canvas. And the year after that, he began painting more and more. Along with his burgeoning curiosity in art, what struck him most was how people responded to his work even then.
“I think people being able to take what was on the canvas and connecting to their personal experiences, or to someone that they know or someone they loved, I thought that was really powerful,” he said.
White remained at Northwestern, earning a Bachelor’s in Business Communications and Sociology and a Master’s in Integrated Marketing Communications. But by then, he found his true playing field — canvas and, eventually, walls.
Creating a Mural, From Idea to Execution
Drawing on a sketchpad is one thing, but creating murals is quite another. Because murals exist within specific spaces and places, artists have to take the community where their art will live into consideration.
To create a mural that fits the environment, White follows these steps:
- Engage the Community: He meets with community leaders and conducts research to gauge the context and history of the space the mural will occupy.
- Develop the Idea: He takes what he has learned and his research and begins putting pen or charcoal to paper. This is how the mural is conceptualized.
- Digitize the Idea: This is where he uses software to render a digital version of the idea, bringing his mural concept to life. At this step, he can powerfully communicate his vision to stakeholders.
- Go Big and Make It Real: White calls this the most challenging step. This is where he takes his digital concept and blows it out into a living, breathing mural on a wall, going from small to big.
Ultimately, he uses marketing insights and sociological research to create wall art that reflects an area’s theme, history and sensibility.
“The worst thing you possibly can do is put out a work of art in a community that doesn’t feel like it belongs there,” he said.
His Favorite Mural
His favorite mural creation is perhaps his most visible one, smack dab against a building at one of the busiest intersections in downtown Chicago — Ida B. Wells and Dearborn. He created it during the pandemic to represent the 12 essential workers in the visage of one human subject. In creating it, he read up on the downtown workers the piece was intended to honor and even talked to a few of them.
Tens of thousands of drivers see it every day.
“Entering downtown Chicago was one space where I wasn’t sure I’d ever see my mural, at least not in the short term,” White said. “So being able to put that one there, also, mid-pandemic, was definitely one of my favorites.”
The Self-Made Artist as a Young Man
White’s website states that his art “straddles the line between fine art, sociology and experiential design.” It also says, “He utilizes insights to inspire, innovate and explore relevant material with culture through creativity.”
Yet, the heart of his story goes beyond philosophy and techniques. It’s the journey of a man who saw one dream get derailed only to adopt and attain a new one. Letting go of the first one was tough, he admits.
“Ending at football was an emotional conversation,” White said. “That’s how I was connected with my dad and also just a family of athletes. So that was an emotional moment.”
He said that when he began taking those first steps toward pursuing art full-time, it started out as a fascination. But that fascination was met with uncertainty from his parents.
They had a lot of questions, he said. “Things that parents, like most parents, would want you to take into consideration for your own personal well-being.”
When White started to believe in his competence as an artist, it gave him the confidence to pursue it full-time. Eventually, his parents would be supportive. Eventually.
“I’m sure if you ask my dad, he would’ve told you I was the craziest person in the world leaving a corporate 500 company. But, here we are.”
For More Information
To view White’s other murals, visit his site.
White will also host the third annual annual “Something I Can Feel” (SICF) art gala on June 17 at The Shops at Northbridge. This Juneteenth event will be followed by two weeks of unique experiences through art, food, healing, yoga and more, all curated by White. Once finalized, information about this year’s SICF event will be posted here.