Gush if you will about the commercial triumphs of Amazon, whose tentacles reach into nearly everyone’s home, or Apple’s $2 trillion market value, the American spirit lives on not in corporations, but in individuals.
Which is a good thing. A great thing, actually. And never more so than now, on October’s cusp, as we stiffen our backs against a pandemic that kills about 1,000 of us every day.
It is true that in an increasingly urbanized world, self-reliance often kneels at the feet of institutions, whose devil’s deal, forever tempting, promises comfort and security in exchange for attendance and conformity.
Yet like standard-bearers, many Americans still carve their own paths.
“A project like this was years in the making,’’ Bob White said the other day. “And, of course, we started it long before the world got itself into its current situation with the pandemic.”
Bearded and bespectacled, White’s appearance is artsy, but his nature is down-home. A working man, his days begin and end mixing paints and staring at an easel, with his fortunes hanging in the balance.
Trading in sporting art, White has spent the pandemic months preparing for publication of what he calls a “lifetime’’ book of his work. A coffee-table collection, his 280-page missive published by Stackpole Books is a cavalcade of inspiration born of experience and honed by reflection.
Some of the book’s paintings cast in soft palettes morning light playing against St. Croix riverbanks not far from his home. Others convey in pencil the quiet aspirations of two men and a dog questing for ducks in a narrow river boat.
Sporting art, as differenced from wildlife art, White says, “involves the environs of a sporting activity and the people who pursue their passions there.”
So it is that people are prominent in White’s paintings, whether, as in “Rain,” an oil on canvas rendition of a solitary fly angler beset by a soft mist, or in “Partners,” in which a grouse hunter and his dog rest self-satisfied beneath a autumnally chromatic tree, reveling in warm sunlight.
“The land, water, and weather are main characters in most of these paintings and the fishermen — even when they’re front and center in the composition — seem sunk in the landscape,” observes fly fishing author and guru John Gierach in the book’s introduction.
A native of southern Illinois who grew up hunting and fishing in the crooks and bends of the Mississippi, White, 62, now lives in Marine on St. Croix with his wife, Lisa, and one child of four, a teenage daughter, still at home.
Upstairs over White’s garage, his studio is a hodgepodge of books and renderings, firewood and ringing phones that suggests anything but an assembly line. It’s there he paints commissions of retrievers and pointers and the sportsmen and women who hunt over them, and other scenes that his hunting and angling clients want immortalized.
His studio is also where, for many years, he has painted contributions for magazines such as Gray’s Sporting Journal, Sporting Classics, Gun Dog, Ducks Unlimited and Fly Rod & Reel.
As a kid, White marveled at the paintings that graced the covers of Outdoor Life and Field and Stream, whose illustrators, including William Harden Foster, Arthur D. Fuller, John Scott and Walter Haskell Hinton, among others, often depicted raging bears and other dangers that awaited people who ventured afield.
Inspired, White sold his first artwork at age 12. But in college he was uncertain he could make a living painting and drawing. So he majored in delinquency studies and became a youth counselor.
Eventually, however, the call of the wild beckoned, and in 1984, on a whim, he took a summer job guiding fly fishermen in Alaska.
“If it wouldn’t have been for the coronavirus, this would have been my 36th summer up there,” White said, noting that his role now on Alaska jaunts is less that of a guide than as a host of small groups who travel north in June, July, August and September seeking bountiful trout, salmon and scenery.
Channeling his guiding days, White painted “Headed home,” which is included in his book, and which captures perfectly in oil on canvas an Alaska river guide standing in the stern of his flatboat, outboard tiller in hand, motoring at day’s end against the current, while returning to camp.
On a recent day, along the banks of the St. Croix, with a fly rod in hand and beneath a leafy canopy that signaled the change of seasons, the artist was, in effect, in residence.
Bending and lapping, and the subject downstream of multiple declinations, the river water that flowed at White’s feet would widen and flatten before passing his boyhood Illinois home, the route from which to Minnesota has been forged over these many years by his own hand.
“Doing what I do I will never be able to retire,” he said.
“The good news is that if I could retire, I’d still do what I’m doing right now.”
Editor’s note: Measuring 10 by 12 inches, with 246 annotated images and selected essays, “The Classic Sporting Art of Bob White’’ (Stackpole Books; $67) is available online and through booksellers. Signed copies ($75) are at bobwhitestudio.com, where a limited edition of 300 books is also available.