A longtime resident of District 5 and an artistic mentor to many has died. Eugene E. White‘s large colorful paintings of historical figures like Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and President Barack Obama, interspersed with striking portraits of his neighbors, friends, and family, earned him speaking gigs all over the country; a remarkable feat for a Black portrait artist from what used to be a low-income neighborhood in San Francisco.
“My objective is to say, ‘If I did this, you can do it too’,” he told Hoodline in a 2015 interview at age 82.
White was born in 1933 in Arkansas, and accrued a diverse range of skills in his youth. He picked tomatoes, sold clothes, and worked at General Motors in Michigan, before landing for good in San Francisco in 1958. Thanks in part to a long illness, he rediscovered his childhood love of drawing and painting, and had his first exhibition at the Hall of Rowers in Golden Gate Park in 1963.
From there, he rose up alongside new efforts to highlight the work of Black visual artists; he was the first Black painter to show his pieces at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1967, exhibited his work at the first Black Expo in Chicago in 1971, and even traveled to Nigeria in 1977 as part of the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture.
For a self-taught painter, White managed to make waves with his work, which ranged in subject from sharecroppers to Martin Luther King Jr. But locally, he was best known as a neighborhood regular and the artist behind some of the colorful murals at the nearby Ella Hill Hutch Community Center. Despite losing 75 of his original works in a fire in the 1980s, he continued to paint until the end of his life.
“In visual art I begin with me. I related this name to my family ties and in memory of many of the beautiful people whom I have met and watched grow,” he told Citizen Film, a group of local documentary storytellers.”I want to tell not just Black kids, I want to show them how they are involved with the community, the world, and they could become the very part of making it better.”
On Monday, the Museum of African Diaspora announced on Facebook that White had died, calling him “a legendary San Francisco-based artist, educator, and entrepreneur that has documented the Black experience throughout the world at large. Eugene E. White has been an incredible force throughout this city and has worked in his gallery along the 21-Hayes line for over 50 years.”