Story and photos By Victor Texcucano
“If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.” This quote by revered 19th century artist Vincent Van Gogh explains how Derrick White, professional artist, works through self-doubt every artist suffers from time-to-time. Derrick, who is also an art professor at Tyler Junior College, knows self-doubt is something that plagues all artists, frequently and repeatedly, but is a hurdle that is not insurmountable. This is a concept he instills in his students.
“If I can teach students to persevere through that idea of self-doubt, then I’ve done my job as an art professor,” he says. “I think that’s what stops most people. But every single artist I’ve ever studied; every artist I’ve ever met, talked to, read about, or know, has that (self-doubt).”
The nagging feeling of self-doubt, as Derrick describes it, harassed him not only as an artist but also at the thought of becoming a teacher. His journey to becoming an art professor is something he certainly did not expect.
Derrick’s journey in the art world started at an early age. He was born in Wheeler, a small town in the eastern part of the Panhandle. He grew up in the nearby town of Shamrock, where he spent the first 10 years of his life. At the age of 10, his family moved to DeSoto, a Dallas suburb, where he graduated high school.
While Derrick has been a professional artist for more than 20 years, he knew, even as a child, his life would be in art.
“Like most artists, I’ve been doing art my whole life,” he says. “Children instinctively and intuitively draw, and those drawings (in my case), came to mean something.”
Derrick’s formal calling into the art world came in college, while attending Cedar Valley College in Lancaster. It was his art appreciation professor, Randy Broadnax, who inspired him to pursue a degree in art. Derrick transferred to the University of North Texas, where he received his bachelor’s of fine arts degree in 1992. It was in his undergraduate career where he sincerely contemplated a career as an artist, after working through fears in his head.
“I think a lot of people have to overcome this misconception that people have: ‘If you become an artist, you’re going to die alone, you’re going to starve and have a lowly existence,’ that romanticized Van Gogh’s life,” he says. “I had an epiphany, I guess. We live in a visual world. Whether I make my living painting as a career, or doing graphic design or photography, you can make it as an artist.”
After receiving his bachelors’ degree, he applied for graduate school solely at the University of North Texas, from which he received his master’s of fine arts degree in 1997.
“I knew I was in the right place. I enjoyed the faculty, and I enjoyed the town. I wanted to stay in the area,” he says.
After graduate school, he didn’t plan on teaching. He got married, moved back to DeSoto and acquired work in a distribution warehouse as warehouse manager for the DeSoto school district.
“At first, the idea of teaching terrified me,” he says. “I did not want to stand in front of a room full of people and talk. I loved the idea of being alone in my studio and creating art.”
A couple years later, the thought of teaching didn’t sound as daunting. The warehouse lent to extreme cold in winter and blistering heat in summer, so standing in front of a room talking about his passion seemed like a decent option.
He left his warehouse job and began work for the Arlington Museum of Art and teaching part-time at Tarrant County Community College. He also taught part-time at Eastfield College in Mesquite.
“I was paying my part-timer dues, driving from one end of the Metroplex to the other,” he says.
During this time, he worked at the museum five days a week until noon, then drove to TCCC to teach afternoon classes, and then traveled to Mesquite to teach night classes at Eastfield.
East Texas became a part of the equation in 2000, when he applied for a job at Tyler Junior College. He interviewed for an open position at TJC and was a finalist for the job. Someone from his past beat him out, however.
In 1992, he participated in an exhibition in Corsicana, where he came in third place. At the exhibition, he met a woman who came in second. The “little British lady,” as he put it, was a woman named Barbara Holland, who also beat him out for the job at TJC.
“I was one of the finalists, so I was called down for the last set of interviews, and I noticed that Barbara Holland was also a finalist,” he says. “They ended up hiring her that year instead of me. I was driving back after I got the news that I didn’t get the job, and I was wondering, ‘Who is this little British lady who keeps beating me at everything?’”
The following year, however, TJC had a substantial growth in its art department, and they had a full-time position available. Derrick, again became a finalist and was hired.
As for working with the “little British lady,” Derrick says he feels very fortunate and blessed to have had the opportunity to work with her as long as he did. He considers her an inspiration. She retired about two years ago.
Derrick spends his time between teaching and working on his own art, which he sells and displays in exhibitions in the area. He says he draws inspiration from life and basic human existence. He draws inspiration from the people in his life, such as his students, colleagues and family, which includes his wife, Alicia, of 14 years, and their two kids, Jerri, 14, and Joshua, 11.
Derrick’s art, which can be described as busy and chaotic, yet optimistic, centers around the shared commonality of what it is to live a human existence, he says.
“You can put something absurd in your work, and people get it, because they understand how crazy life can be sometimes,” he says. “A lot of times, some of the work can come off as sarcastic, but it’s really kind of a celebration of absurdity, more than cynicism. You have to take a humorous approach when it comes to what it means to be alive, because it can beat you down if you don’t.”
Derrick’s artwork, which involves mostly paintings, but also sculptures and mixed media, share the same theme of optimism through the absurdity of life.
His pieces depict scenes of beautiful chaos that makes one wonder what goes on inside the head of an artist capable of such busy pieces.
“When I have an exhibition, I see all these (pieces or art) spaced out, and I’m very thankful all these paintings, all these ideas, all those pieces, aren’t in my mind anymore,” he says. “I think if I had all this stuff in my head still, I’d be crazy by now. It’s nice to get it out of my system and kind of record it.”
Derrick has an easy explanation for why he enjoys what he does:
“What I love most about creating art is sharing my human existence with somebody else; the attempt at communicating or having a connection with the viewer,” he says. “Someone responding to something I did.”
Derrick says he is fascinated with moving paint around, the spontaneity and ‘happy accidents’ that take place when painting or sculpting.
He says accidents are part of the process, which is why he feels satisfied when paint runs or splatters; he says he almost feels empowered at working on a piece without a finished product in mind. This creates what he calls the “surprise of creating.”
Derrick says he believes his career as an artist has shaped his career as a professor, and vice versa.
“Being a professor makes me a better artist. I get to go (to work), and I love this stuff; I’m passionate about it. I like to share that love and passion with others,” he says. “I get to talk about the art fundamentals, and try to help students find their own creative voice, and I get to talk and discuss art on a daily basis. Then I get to bring that energy into the studio in the evenings and create art myself.”
The definition of art is something that often sparks debate, since every person has an opinion of what they think is art. Derrick’s definition of art is an interesting one.
“It has to be made by a human being. That artist can incorporate nature in the artwork they make, but it has to have some human connection to the human condition,” he says. “So I try to stress all the time that the only qualification you need to be an artist is a pulse. If you’re alive, you can communicate or express your human existence to the rest of us. Whether it’s with words, or sounds, or grunts, or movements, or paintings or poems; anybody gets to do anything, and it’s art.”
Derrick’s art serves as a metaphor for his life and career: A random stroke here, a random stroke there, spontaneity, ambiguity and a bit of chaos and absurdity.
But as he says, and his art reflects, “you have to take a humorous approach when it comes to what it means to be alive, because it can beat you down if you don’t.”