When Rob White’s pencil moves across a sheet of paper, something magical happens. Whether it’s the local topic of the day, a nature scene that could be recognized easily by North Fork dwellers or a surreal dreamscape that comes out of the depths of his imagination, the retired longtime Suffolk Times editorial cartoonist is constantly tinkering with his work, revisiting and expanding on ideas he’s worked with over the span of years.
A retrospective of Mr. White’s work is on display at the Jedediah Hawkins Inn in Jamesport through Thanksgiving.
Mr. White, 65, grew up in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio, and in western Massachusetts, but he spent long vacations throughout his childhood at his mother’s family’s house in New Suffolk. He moved there full time in 1972.
As a child, his active imagination often overwhelmed his peers.
“I had a reputation for being somewhat weird. I drew a lot of monsters, gargoyles, that kind of stuff,” he said.
Mr. White studied landscape architecture at Cornell, but learned most of what he knows about art from experience.
“When I was young, I didn’t think I would be an artist. Being a landscape architect was artistic, but it was toeing the line of having a career,” he said. “I had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to paint and that I would make enough money doing landscaping to paint all the time. It didn’t quite work out like that.”
In 1975, at age 30, Mr. White collaborated with songwriter Harry Chapin on a book titled “Looking … Seeing,” which joined Mr. Chapin’s poems with some of Mr. White’s most surreal drawings.
“We were in the process of a second one when he died,” he said.
“They evolved a little bit,” he said of his drawings in the never-completed second book. “They weren’t as weird as they used to be. I said ‘I don’t want to do that anymore.’ Whether that’s growth or not, who knows?”
Mr. White began working as an editorial cartoonist at The Suffolk Times in 1978, and did freelance work as a graphic artist and cartoonist for advertisers before he hung up his pen in 1998 and turned to painting full time.
The current show is in a barn converted to a gallery space behind the Jedediah Hawkins Inn, which painter Max Moran is managing. A retrospective of Mr. White’s career was his idea. It includes paintings, sketches and cartoons from throughout the artist’s career.
Mr. White’s basement studio in his mother’s house, where he prepared for the show, contains an ever-evolving series of paintings. Leaning against the banister on a recent afternoon was an eerie, thickly painted canvas, a Dali-meets-Van Gogh of bowling pins scattered on a beach under an eclipsed moon. Some lean against each other as if they were lovers on a moonlight stroll and others lie on their sides as if casualties of a war-time maneuver.
“I did an original draft five years ago, but I never showed it to anyone,” he said. “I just re-painted over it. It’s human in a way to me, and evocative. But you can read into it anything you want.”
Next to the bowling pins, another canvas depicted an older couple in lounge chairs on a beach. They were looking off into the distance, toward a sky that was gray but for strange circular blots of blue.
Portraits of New Suffolk characters were filed away in storage bins, and a vertigo-inducing bird’s eye view of the Horton Point Lighthouse, painted from memory, was not far from the door. On the wall, a deer skull, with the antlers stripped off from it long before Mr. White found it decomposing in the woods, had come back to life with an ornate new rack of bony protuberances above its head, with a pingpong ball firmly stuck to each antler-tip.
“I call this ‘Life after Death,’” he said.
Mr. White had just finished working on a large canvas close-up of a box turtle, painted from photographs of a turtle he saw crossing his driveway. He was beginning work on a portrait of a boulder at the end of Depot Lane at the edge of Long Island Sound.
His inspiration, as well as his process, is always different. When painting portraits, Mr. White first invites the subject into his studio, asking them to sit and making conversation while he snaps photographs and perhaps completes the gestural undertones of a painting. Sometimes, as with the turtle, it’s a sudden inspiration to capture a moment or a place on film before he turns it into a painting. And sometimes, he begins by wanting to depict a human emotion, then sits at his drawing table wrestling with how to portray it.
“You can go through a lot of paper doing that,” he said. “Sometimes the ideas evolve with a life of their own, sometimes they just pop. That’s the work part. Then, once you get that, it’s exhilaration.”
“I’m a late bloomer. Late in life, I decided I would make a stand of it,” he said of full-time painting. “I don’t care what happens, I have a good time doing it.”
The Jedediah Hawkins Inn is at 200 South Jamesport Ave. in Jamesport. The exhibit is open Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. For more information, call 722-2900.