An abandoned Omaha house and its 30 windows have become an unusual art project — the framing of the structure's imagined past.
It's the latest undertaking by painter Watie White. He has exhibited other projects since arriving in town seven years ago, but nothing like this.
“When I look at condemned houses boarded up,” he said, “I find them incredibly compelling. The boards are an unpainted canvas.”
Vacant for about eight years, the frame house at 2424 Emmet St. was built in 1895. So it was still new when the 1898 Trans-Mississippi Exposition, a kind of world's fair, took place blocks away.
Through the 20th century, the house was home to families with such names at Kerschner, Swearingen, Brell, Wilmer, Ackerman, Wesley, Logan and Smith.
White, 41, a former college football player, painted images of people at his Omaha studio and installed them in the home's window frames.
Visitors who circle the house can see his interpretation of families in good times and bad, his way of “putting life back into the building.”
But this building is dead, destined to be razed at the end of March. Habitat for Humanity eventually will build anew on the site.
As fascinating as turning an old house into artwork may be, the artist himself is interesting, too, starting with his name.
Watie is married to Katie, but their names don't rhyme. His is pronounced “Wotty.”
It is Cherokee, meaning “Warpaint.” His parents, now deceased, were not American Indians but once were active in Native American causes.
Watie grew up poor in southern Illinois, he said, his family at one point going on public assistance. His high school football coach was his art teacher, and his interest in art grew.
Watie made NCAA Division III All-American as a defensive end at Carleton College in Minnesota, though football resulted in concussions and multiple ankle, knee and shoulder injuries.
“I'd do it all again,” he said. “I wasn't incredibly gifted, but I was an effort player.”
He married a fellow Carleton student from Omaha. Katie Weitz White now holds a Ph.D. from Northwestern University in human development and social policy and recently stepped down as director of educational initiatives at Susie Buffett's Sherwood Foundation.
Her parents are Carleton grads Barbara and Wally Weitz of Omaha. He is an investor who runs Wallace R. Weitz & Co. and is a member of the Omaha Business Hall of Fame.
Watie and Katie, parents of two children, are active in civic affairs. They said in an Omaha Community Foundation publication that they “hope Omaha can be the kind of urban setting that is a model for the country for how we can live in a diverse community.”
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Standing outside the Emmet Street house on a recent morning, Watie said the goal with his artwork “was not to just try to show a bubble-gum, glossy interpretation. It shows positive things, negative things, humorous and sad things.”
He used people he knew as models. One painting, for example, shows a woman working in the kitchen, with family members in the background. In a side window, she is pictured with her hands over her face in what he calls “an expression of longing, guilt and sadness.”
His paintings were done in acrylic on paper and then digitally enlarged and printed on vinyl before they were mounted on plywood and installed. He has spent six months on the project, and he plans to remove the windows and paintings for later showings and possible sales.
He will lead a discussion and answer questions outside the house at 11:30 a.m. today and at 11:30 a.m. on Saturday.
“Omaha is a lot better place for art than I anticipated,” Watie said. “There are a lot of opportunities to work with organizations here. People want to partner with you, and they get excited by ideas.”
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