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“I’m always looking for ways to understand things and people at a deep level and then bring it to life artistically,” says Dwight White II ’16, ’17 MS.
White, who grew up in Houston, played defensive back for the Northwestern football team before injuries forced him to leave the team prior to his senior year. In the personal introspection that followed, he turned to art and is now a professional artist and creative consultant based in Chicago and Los Angeles. His works include a 40-foot mural in Chicago’s South Loop and recent collaborations with the Chicago Bulls and Chicago Fire.
His sensitivity to history and to people made White a natural fit for a big commission: creating a large mural for the newly renovated Black House on the Evanston campus. White’s Undivided Legacy mural — 5 feet tall and nearly 14 feet wide — now hangs in the main first-floor space known as the Quibbler’s Club Family Room. (A replica of the original 1970s first-floor mural now hangs on the wall of the B100 Student Lounge.)
Northwestern Magazine’s Martin Wilson sat down with White to talk about his experiences in the Black House, his transition from football to art and his creative process.
You came to Northwestern as a student-athlete. How did you discover your artistic side?
Painting was one of the things that came about as I was trying to redefine and explore myself while also battling mental health issues. Art was the thing that got me out of dark places. I actually started painting during my senior year at Northwestern, just before I graduated. I took an intro to painting course, and that’s the only painting class I’ve ever taken.
What did the Black House mean to you during your time at Northwestern?
The Black House was one of the places on campus where I knew I could see people like myself. I don’t know what the percentage of Black students was when I was in school, but it wasn’t likely that you’d just bump into each other on campus. So the Black House was that home away from home. It was a place where I got fed sometimes when I probably didn’t have a ton of money on my Wildcard. There were friends there. I was also on the board of FMO — that’s For Members Only [Northwestern’s Black student alliance] — so I went to the Black House twice a week for our meetings. It was a significant space for me, even more so after my football career ended.
What kind of research did you do before beginning your work on the mural?
It was important for me to engage our community as much as possible, even though we were in a pandemic and couldn’t be in the same room. The conversations I’ve had with students, faculty and even alumni about the Black House have been fairly consistent. The common perception is that the Black House is a home on campus. And it’s something that we aim to protect.
Some students talked about how they always feel like they’re striving to not only improve but prove themselves. I also heard from students about having confidence, feeling like they — we — belong here and can excel and exceed. I found those conversations inspiring and empowering.
Can you describe the mural’s design?
There are three subjects on the piece: One represents the past, one the present — looking directly out from the canvas — and one the future. It’s important for me to have both male and female representation as well. I see super powerful, strong Black women leaders on campus. And I know there’s a ton of men, like myself, who also play a significant role in this space. That was the general concept.
The one thing that doesn’t necessarily come through in this piece is the celebration of ourselves as Black Northwestern students. So I literally wrote “celebration” on the canvas, along with other insights that I felt were a part of the story. Celebrating moments on campus with peers, teammates and loved ones are memories I cherish.
How do you prepare the canvas before you work on the main design?
I typically add a bunch of symbolism to the piece as my first step. I’ll add words that come to mind that are related to the piece. It helps me understand where I am on the canvas but also gets my creativity flowing. Sometimes that comes through in the final work, and sometimes all of it is hidden. It helps me, especially on larger pieces, map out where I am. You spend so much time right up in front of the piece and don’t step back for hours at a time.
What are some of the words or symbols you used as inspiration or “underpainting” in this case?
I wrote things like “Time is now.” I wrote and put emphasis on “Black.” There are thoughts about the Black House and my experiences that you won’t see in the final version of the mural. But the thing about that process is that it lives on the canvas, behind the finished concept. And for this project, we documented the entire process, so you’ll actually be able to see the underpainting. It won’t go completely unnoticed, which typically it does in my final work.
What do you hope people see when they experience your mural in the Black House, both today and in the future?
When people come into the Black House, I hope they get, one, a sense of curiosity. And, two, I want people to see themselves when they walk in. That’s important. As a Black student, you may walk around campus and not see yourself. This is one place where people come specifically to see themselves.
When people see this mural in the Black House in the future, I hope that they get a sense of time. The reason I create art is partially to document history. So I hope they get a sense of what the energy was at this time — why the subjects look the way that they do, why there’s a sense of seriousness. Because I do think we’re in a transitional time, an empowering time, that’s hopefully going to be uplifting to our community. The subjects in the mural are representative of the energy I got from our current students. In the future, our student body will continue to evolve, based on all of the work being done, and I imagine the energy on campus will also change as we continue to make progress. I love to see progress.
Martin Wilson ’10 MS is director of creative production in Northwestern’s Office of Global Marketing and Communications.