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Eugene E. White, a groundbreaking painter and resident of San Francisco for over 60 years died at home of heart failure on February 8. He was 85 years old.
African American lives, whether here in The City or from his native, rural Arkansas, were the primary subjects of White’s large scale canvases. Like his contemporaries Charles White and Emory Douglas, the stories of lives told by his paintings dating from the early ‘60s would be otherwise undocumented were it not for his keen awareness and devotion to his culture.
Exhibiting for the first time in 1964 at the Hall of Flowers in Golden Gate Park, his final public exhibit was at the San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery in 2018. White maintained his own gallery and studio space on Hayes Street until it was recently dismantled.
“I may be the first black-owned gallery here, and I think I'm the last,” said the artist in a 2016 interview.
The windows of White's gallery, Kujiona (after the Swahili word for the concept, “to see one’s self”), changed focus and display but were always persistently Afro-centric. His paintings and other ephemera were visual cues that black history is not just the month of February, but a lived experience. White regularly engaged passerby and especially school children on matters of art, history, and especially love of the land, which he carried with him from his own Southern childhood.
Born on March 29, 1933 into a sharecropping family in Ozan, Arkansas, as a child, he worked alongside Portuguese immigrant farmer workers who befriended him and taught him their language. White's story as a field hand can be read in Jabo’s Boy — Now His Manchild, An Autobiography, published in 2004 by his own press.
Gifted as an artist from the outset, White escaped the rigors of the cotton fields and the racism in the Jim Crow South: He moved to Ohio and then to Detroit where he found work doing safety and design sketches for the Cadillac Motor Car Division. Making his way to San Francisco, he worked as an electronics repairman and sign painter. After suffering a car accident on the Bay Bridge in 1963, he began drawing figures from his hospital bed.
White went on to paint African Americans almost exclusively. He took particular interest in the human form: portraits, facial expressions and movements of the hands and feet. He occasionally took pubic and private commissions, but perhaps most notably about him, White did not entertain offers from gallerists and rejected all contact with art markets with the exception of a few collectors. He did however travel to show his art, from the Black Expo in Chicago to Nigeria as a guest of its national cultural festival. He recently completed three commissions for the historically black college, Bennett. His public work remains on view in San Francisco at the Ella Hill Hutch Center and at Ingleside Presbyterian Church; The Oakland Museum of California holds his prints in its permanent collection. In 2013, Mayor Ed Lee named July 11 Eugene White Day; in 2016, he was honored with an installation in his name at the revitalized Buchanan Street Mall.
White is survived by his beloved wife and caregiver, Lynnette, their daughter Tracye Taylor, and six grandchildren; Natasha Taylor, Nykole Taylor, Granville Taylor IV, Trevion Speed, JaMarion Speed, JaMariae Speed and one great grandson, Granville Taylor V. Quiet hour service to be held Sunday Feb. 17 from 6:30-8 PM followed by homegoing service, Monday, February 18, 11 am, at Third Baptist Church 1399 McAllister Street in San Francisco. For further information, contact Duggan’s Mortuary, 415 431-4900.