Why I am an Artist, A Personal Thank You: This is for the Malamute: Inside the Artist’s Studio

ben wheeler

derrick white 2 eguide mag tyler txBy Derrick White

An Alaskan Malamute is a large breed of dog used for hauling, much like an Alaskan sled dog. They are strong, big, and playful dogs similar to Siberian Huskies. Please indulge me a few moments of your time.

Life is so strange and so short. As an art professor I basically try to teach two skills – appreciation and perseverance. As an artist, I spend time making paintings and objects. Sometimes it goes well and sometimes it does not. Everything in your life that is good (art, health, friends, family, etc.) will not last. “Value what you have while you have it.” Please stop, go back and read that last sentence again. Furthermore, the tribulations we all experience in human life (illness, heartaches, layoffs, etc.) will not last. “Persist and don’t ever give up.” You need to keep chugging along, working towards your goals, and living each of your days to the best of your ability using that wonderful human stubbornness of perseverance.

My ability to appreciate comes from my dad, a man who instilled the great qualities of dreaming, absurdity, fascination, imagination, the beauty of a moment, and creativity. I also learned powerful lessons from the foibles of my father, and I have tried hard not to repeat some of the same mistakes. The reason why I am an artist is because children instinctively draw, play, and create. This does not have to be taught. I have just never stopped in my exploration and fascination of art and processes.

derrickI remember as a preschooler, I craved the praise of my mother by scribbling on sheets of paper in the haphazard chance of making a cursive letter or recognizable symbol while my brothers were away at school. Lovingly, she could always find an E in there somewhere. I beamed. She would always tenderly staple my crudely drawn and misspelled handmade comic books together and proudly share and recite them. Her warmth and encouragement still compels me artistically, at a very core level, to this day. Throughout her life I witnessed the strongest person I can imagine conquering challenges head on, getting knocked down, but never failing to get back up. I learned organization, diligence, unconditional love, and patience. I learned perseverance.

As a romantic, my dad involved himself in many unique ventures. He owned a gas station along historic Route 66 in the early 1970’s, located in Shamrock, Texas, and one day a van of traveling hippies stopped. They were unable to pay for their gas so my dad bartered a deal to trade a tank of gas for them leaving an enormous Malamute dog as collateral. Dad bringing stray or wounded animals home was not uncommon, but my mother was forced to deal with this large and unruly canine wreaking havoc upon her home.

Weeks later, after the hippies reached their California destination, they wired Dad the money for the gas and Mom was asked to please drive the dog to the Amarillo airport. This was also not uncommon, dad gets into a messy, complicated situation, and mom bails him out. She said the road trip was awful, traveling 90 miles with a hairy beast in her car to get him onto an airplane and send him home. Years later Mom jokingly said that when she arrives in Heaven she wants to thank God for the blessings in her life, but she would be curious to know which specific blessings were in return for the Malamute – the feeding, cleaning, not killing her husband, and the horrific road trip with a gigantic, car-roaming dog. With a belief and understanding of God’s grace over human acts of kindness, she was still curious as to why she was subjected to such a ridiculous life event. She hoped God would point to something specific in her worldly existence and say, “This is for the Malamute!”

derrick white tyler tx eguideMy mom affectionately, diligently, and patiently raised four boys (seven, if you include my dad and my friend Daryl who lived at our house for many years, and Paul who practically lived there, too). She was the indisputable keystone of our family. I have credited many people for influencing my artwork, from famous art movements to inspiring professors and friends, but deep down I still want the thrill of the affectionate approval and acceptance only a mother can provide.

In short, I am still trying to make my mom proud. She was generous with her praise, proudly kept all my press clippings and art show announcements. She saved scrapbook drawings from when I was 2 years old and instilled in me an “I believe in you” confidence from which I still pull (sometimes desperately) today. I’m not attempting to fill a void, but rather match a very high model for living life tolerantly, with intensity, strength, appreciation, and tenacity..

My mother recently passed away after suffering through years of Alzheimer’s disease, and I am sure she is getting all of her earthly questions answered. As for me, I like to believe that all the things I get ‘right’ – devotion to my wife, volunteering to help others, raising and loving our kids, when I remember to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you,’ artistic determination, and a devotion to teaching, are in some way a dedication to my mom as an indebtedness specifically for the Malamute and for so much more.

Every student who just happens to be inspired by something they learned or understood in my art class, or any viewer gleaning insight about oneself or life from one of my paintings, gets traced directly back to my mom in a hot car with an annoying dog.

Thank you for the Malamute. Thank you for the dauntless example of how to live without resentment or complaint, meeting challenges as opportunities and for being the best example of perseverance. I hope a trace of this positive spirit continues exponentially through all of the thousands of people I have known throughout my teaching, my art, and my life as well as the thousands of people they encounter…and so on, and so on, and so on.

When you find yourself in those chaotic moments of life, where you seem to have an immense dog slobbering on you as you drive down life’s highway, remember to persevere, and hey, at least you have some company. So never overlook the appreciation in your life. Value what you have while you have it …Goodbye Mom.

By the way, I would have let that dog out of the car just outside the city limits. But after feeling the convictions of disappointing my mother, I also know that I would have gone back to look for it.

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