Artist Derrick White is not a minimalist. More often than not, his canvases are filled edge to edge — brimming with twisting and turning line work, colorful acrylic and watercolor paint shapes, sketchbook figures and collages of imagery cut from the pages of magazines.
In one notable departure from his typical abstract work “Goodbye Mom” captures, in its simplicity, the slow slipping away of his mother’s life to Alzheimer’s disease.
The 40 x 40 inch acrylic on canvas fools the eye. At a passing glance, the canvas intentionally appears blank.
“Goodbye Mom” was the first artwork White, 53, created after his mother Judy died in 2015 at age 74. He hopes the hard-to-detect light blue lettering on white, coupled with a large blank center, will invite viewers to stop and want to know more.
The message White wants to convey through “Goodbye Mom” is this: You have to appreciate the people in your life while you have them. “I’ve relayed that message to my friends as I’ve lost both of my parents at this stage in my life,” he said.
White’s father died suddenly of a stroke in 2009.
It was after his father’s death that the family began to notice Judy’s signs of Alzheimer’s disease, a progressive and incurable brain disorder. It is the most common form of dementia. Alzheimer’s disease causes memory loss, loss of language, changes in personality, and it is a top cause of death for the elderly in the United States, according to the National Institute on Aging.
While the starkness of “Goodbye Mom” is a departure from his usual paintings and mixed media pieces, White did use a familiar technique in his lettering. For years, he has used a pack of stencils purchased from a teacher supply store to add messages in text to his work.
“The words on this piece are painted over ever so slightly until they almost disappear into the canvas,” he said. “When you have a loved one with Alzheimer’s that’s essentially what they are doing, they are disappearing away from you right before your eyes.”
White began “Goodbye Mom” by painting the canvas white, laying out the stenciled letters and lightly spray painting around them with blue, then painting over the letters with a thin, transparent wash of white to further obscure them.
“I wanted it to have that fade away and that last message of “Goodbye Mom” for a send off or some sense of closure,” he said.
White says the placement of “Goodbye” at the top left of the canvas and “mom” at the far bottom right make the emptiness of the white space in the middle more pronounced. “That’s part of that goodbye, that exiting out of the frame,” he said, adding that he hopes people can interpret the sense of loss embedded in the piece.
It is estimated that over five million people in the United States are living with Alzheimer’s disease. According to the Alzheimer’s Alliance of Smith County, one in three people over the age of 65 will be diagnosed with dementia.
“I tell my friends to appreciate their parents while they are still here to appreciate…I also warn them about some of the challenges ahead,” White said. Those challenges include increased doctors visits, new health issues, and the inevitable advanced stages when the person no longer remembers names or the identity of friends and family.
The disease forces patients and their caretakers to live in the present moment even if the patient’s mind is elsewhere. White recalls the time near his mother’s end of life when she needed hip replacement surgery.
“Her recovery was so chaotic because she had Alzheimer’s. She’d wake up in her hospital bed and couldn’t remember that she had had hip surgery. She didn’t know why she was there, so she’d try to get up and walk and would fall again.”
Because the multiple falls interfered with her recovery, she had to have multiple surgeries over several months. White’s wife, Alicia, came up with an idea to help. She placed multiple giant fluorescent colored signs around her mother-in-law’s room to remind her: “Do not get up,” “You’ve had hip surgery” and “Don’t get out of bed.” But because she had Alzheimer’s she didn’t think to read the signs.
White loved both his parents, but says his dad was more of a dream chaser while his mother took the role of being the stable brick in the family.
“She was the calm one, the voice of reason, the one I didn’t want to disappoint,” he said.
Throughout the years, his mother saved newspaper clippings about White’s artwork and attended many of his exhibits.
White remembers being a young boy while his older brothers went off to school. He stayed home drawing and showing off his early artwork to his mom. While his brothers perfected their penmanship in the classroom, young Derrick savored one-on-one time with his mom, hoping to impress her by scratching out letters amid his scribbles.
“She would always find something positive to say.”
White is a professor of art and the art department chair at Tyler Junior College. He holds a Masters of Fine Arts degree from the University of North Texas.
To view more of White’s work, visit his website http://www.canvashead.net or visit his Instagram https://www.instagram.com/canvashead/
The Longview Museum of Fine Arts houses White’s “Now What” in their permanent collection. “Now What” was the first painting White made after returning to the studio upon his father’s death in 2009.
Sarah A. Miller is an independent editorial photographer and journalist with over 10 years of experience in newsrooms across the country. She lives in Tyler with several roommates and three quirky cats. Sarah loves being a community storyteller and getting to document the everyday lives of people in East Texas.
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