ABERDEEN – Following the passing of his mother earlier this year, Aberdeen mailman Charles White committed to the goal of learning three constructive new things in his life – speaking a foreign language, playing piano and painting.
Thanks to Rosetta Stone, he’s got a start on learning Greek, French, Italian and Polish, and he can play a couple of church songs, “Green, Green Grass of Home” and a little Jerry Lee Lewis on the piano. A talent that’s blossoming much faster, though, is capturing images on canvas with every brush stroke of acrylic paint.
“A few months ago when Frankie Provias’s grandson, Nolen [Aycock], died, I wanted to do something for her. I didn’t want to send her a card or flowers,” White said, adding he has vacationed with the Provias family at their home in Greece four times, and Aycock was on one of the trips. “I got it in my head that I’ll just paint her a picture from Greece.”
What started with painting pictures from trips led to views from the home’s porch of the harbor and cruise ships in the area. While he drew pictures in his younger years, he and his mother, Annie Ruth Howell White, rediscovered a love for art in the past few years, which proved to be another bonding activity.
In November 2018, the two of them went to an open house when local artist Arni Anderson had a gallery downtown.
“My mama could do art. When she was younger, she thought about a career in art but she thought she’d have to move to a big city and she said she didn’t want to move so she didn’t pursue a career in art,” White said, adding she took lessons from Anderson 20 years ago.
In March 2019, the Whites took a class in art for an activity to do together.
His mother had a major jawbone surgery in September 2017 and had since been recovering from it. She passed away Jan. 12.
“I’d been a caregiver to her because she’d been sick,” he said. “My dad died in ‘85, so I’ve been here living with my mom. She was my best friend, my housemate and my mom.”
While going for doctor visits in Memphis, he took her to Sun Studio and Graceland for a couple of fun side trips. On the trip to Sun Studio, he took her picture holding a microphone standing on an X where Elvis sang “That’s All Right, Mama.”
“Two or three nights before my mom died, she had a dream that she was fixing the hem on Elvis’s yellow pants. She told me that when we were going up to Memphis. I told her, ‘How many people have dreams like that?’ That must’ve been something like she was about to go,” White said.
That trip was ahead of a surgery scheduled to remove a tumor from her jawbone.
As close as the two of them were, White’s painting has been a coping mechanism to deal with the loss of his mother.
“It’s something constructive. I think it’s a talent the Lord gave me. If you don’t use the talents He gave you, He’ll take them away so you better use them,” he said. “I can just sit there and do it all day. It’s a God-given talent, and I didn’t know I could paint like that.”
After Mrs. White passed away, Susan Langford at The Cottage Tea Room gave him a free lunch as a way to express her condolences, and he returned the favor by giving her a painting of the restaurant.
“I thought if she did something nice for me...I hate when people give me something for free, so I thought I’d do something for her,” he said.
After she posted a picture of the painting on Facebook, the popularity of his work began to flourish. He painted a different painting of Smokie the cat on a patio chair on the front porch of the restaurant, and both of them are on display at the restaurant.
Drawing back to the past
White and his friend, Jim Hussey, used to draw scenes on sheets of white butcher paper at Hussey’s, a former business alongside Meridian Street that housed a cotton office and furniture and grocery stores. Their fathers, the late C.L. White and Leonard Hussey, were partners in the store.
“We would draw these battles. We’d draw ships and tanks and planes. He’d get on one side and we’d draw and we’d swap sides. We’d go to the library and check out books of every battle we wanted to draw,” White said.
He said on into their teenage years, they stopped drawing as school work and other elements of life took up more of their time.
Now that White is finding his own artistic style, he is capturing a few images of the past, including his 95-year-old uncle, Robert White’s, former country store in Una and recreations of photographs in front of Hussey’s decades ago.
“That’s Toby Gettys there in front of his car,” White said describing one of the paintings. “Those were from the late ‘70s. Toby Gettys had this purple Mercury and he lived out on Binford Road. He’d put these hood ornaments and air horns and lights and all this stuff he glued to his car and bolted on it. When he came to town on Saturdays, he put on a show because everyone used to come to town on Saturdays. That was a big day.”
White’s paintings include historic downtown staples such as the Rubel-Houston Home, a view of the Monroe County Chancery Building from the view of the Rubel-Houston Home’s front porch, the Kimble Bakery building’s Reflections Salon and The Magnolias. He has painted several scenes upon people’s requests and in mid-October had already completed 25 paintings.
“I really don’t know if it’s about my paintings or what. It’s like a singer of a song – when they sing a song, it’s not really about them. Everybody interprets a song different, and you capture their lives,” he said. “It’s been a coping mechanism for sure, and I don’t realize how big it is but I’m enjoying it.”