(Editor’s note: this article originally appeared in Kaleidoscope magazine)
As a young boy growing up on the east side of Cleveland, Ohio, Kevin White loved comic books. When his mother or father would tell him to “go and do something,” he usually chose to go up into the attic and draw superheroes. He had a knack for replicating the characters he saw in his comic books. “At a very early age I liked doing art. I thought it was nice that I could do some-thing different than what the other kids were doing.” He describes it as a time of quiet that brought him “peace.” He pursued art through junior high and high school and when it was time to go to college he says, “I knew what I wanted to do and just went for it.” He pursued a degree in commercial art advertising.
In his early 20s, nearly finished with his degree, he took a summer trip to visit his grandmother in Delaware. He hadn’t made it to her house yet when he apprehensively climbed onto the back of a motorcycle, behind his cousin.
He set his fears aside and embarked on his first motorcycle ride. It was a bright, sunny day. Picture-perfect. As they rode down the street he gazed up at the sky—it was beautiful. That’s the last thing he remembers from that day. The next time he opened his eyes, he was in the hospital and family members were standing over him. A drunk driver had hit them. Details about the accident are still a mystery, but his cousin and the driver of the other vehicle were able walk away from the accident. He could not. He suffered a spinal cord injury, damaging both C4 and C5 vertebrae.
White remained in the hospital for a year and a half. Physicians hoped the C4 vertebrae would heal, given time, but that never happened. Surgery was performed to stabilize his neck. During that time he says, “I was trying to figure out how I was going to get out of this situation. How was I going to get back up and moving again so that I could do my art?” He was focused on getting stronger and regaining movement. Only minimal movement returned. Acceptance grew slowly, and he began to wonder if he would be able to create artwork without the ability to move freely and use his hands.
At the hospital, there was an art room on his floor. Inside, he saw several patients who were creating artwork—using their hands and arms. He didn’t see anyone holding a pencil with their mouth and says, “I just sat there.” He was encouraged to participate. He wondered. How?
He visited the room six times before he approached an easel. With a pencil in his mouth he tried to draw a horse looking at the horse that Joni Eareckson Tada had drawn while holding a pencil in her mouth. He had been reading her book and if she could do it, maybe he could too.
He was not pleased with the result. It was too abstract. What he saw did not measure up to the expectation he had for himself. Thinking back he said, “Maybe I didn’t give it a chance but it just wasn’t enough.” He was eventually released from the hospital and went home to live with his family. Remembering that he had only nine credits left to obtain his degree, he decided to go back to school.
“I couldn’t leave it undone,” said White. The professors didn’t treat him any differently than the other students. “They didn’t cut me any slack—and I didn’t want them to.” Aides assisted him, and it was a challenge, but he worked hard and received his bachelor’s degree in commercial art advertising. “It was a joyful day when I went across that stage and got that diploma,” he said.
Receiving the care that he needed was difficult at home, so after one year his family arranged for him to move into a nursing home in Madison. He was uneasy and a bit concerned about living there. Once he arrived, he said he was shocked to see people in wheelchairs zooming in and out of rooms, laughing and giggling. It gave him hope to see people who were smiling and happy. After settling in and becoming familiar with his new living arrangement, he met with a Bureau of Vocational Rehabilitation counselor and told him about his desire to create art. The counselor understood White’s request, but he seemed baffled. How could he help him achieve his goal?
The artist asked for a computer. The counselor found the equipment he would need. White received a small, used Apple computer and an Origin Instruments Headmouse (a wireless head controlled mouse that is placed on top of the monitor). A microchip was attached to his glasses, and he was able to control the arrow on the screen by moving his head. With some dexterity in his right hand he could click the mouse. He started with simple shapes—triangles, circles,
and squares—and fillled them with color.
He was drawing again and he was pleased. He mastered simple images, but he needed a software program with more design options. He asked for, and received, Adobe Photoshop. Learning the program would be something the artist would have to do on his own, and he accepted the challenge. Photoshop provided White with tools to create realistic images. Fascinated by outer space and the beauty of the sky, he transformed the circles and other shapes he had perfected with his outdated software into planets and shooting stars. Blended hues created a cosmic collision of color. He experimented with various methods to create intriguing designs, building layer upon layer.
With antiquated equipment, he needed a part for his computer when he met Karen Blake (her last name at the time). She was a member of her church benevolence ministry and she met with the artist to find out what type of assistance he needed. They have been friends ever since. She said, “We grew and grew in our relationship and now Kevin is not only a friend, he’s like a son to me.” She later met and married Don Densmore who said, “Of course, I had to adopt him, too.” When Densmore came into the picture, White was clicking the mouse with his thumb and it was not always easy for him. Densmore designed a way for him to click the left and right mouse buttons with his elbow, which he can do with ease. Densmore also began numbering, cataloging, and printing the artist’s work. White entered three pieces in a local art show at the Madison Public Library. He won second place. The award validated his hard work and he started to believe, “maybe this will work.”
That show catapulted the artist into more shows. He was motivated by the opportunity to create art again. “Don and Karen have taken me around to different shows. What they do—the framing, printing, the running around—it is a blessing. I can’t think of anyone else who would do some-thing like that. I thought, OK, maybe they are like angels or something. I have been blessed.”
Said Densmore: “We wanted to try to give Kevin more exposure to the public and to involve him in other local art shows so that more people could see his work.” He was able to find a used van that was in good shape and made some modifications to the vehicle (welding wheelchair tie-downs to the floor, adding a shoulder harness and installing a winch to pull him up the aluminum ramps into the van) so they would have the freedom to transport the artist to various events.
The amiable White has encouraged and inspired those who see his work and meet him, according to Blake. That caught him by surprise. It was not something he expected but, it has infused him with a desire to continue creating work, feeling certain this is what he was meant to do. When he shows his work at art venues, he said he enjoys hearing the heartfelt comments and seeing how children react to his art. When a friend came by to see his work, her son was drawn to his pictures of planets and said, “Hey, Mom, you know a cool person!” White said those words were “priceless.”His artwork is printed on various media, including glossy photo paper, canvas and aluminum. Although the artist has had some favorites through the years, each new piece he creates tends to trump that last one in preference.
White now works with an “art coach” who is a photographer and familiar with Photoshop. The man was a member of Densmore’s photography club and took an interest in White’s art. They work together once a week. He has learned new techniques and they have collaborated on some pieces—combining photographs with digital images. The one they are working on now merges a picture of Lake Erie with some planets and stars.
The soft-spoken artist has a warm smile and a welcoming demeanor. Art is his passion, but he said he also enjoys watching sports, listening to music and participating in a good game of chess, although he hasn’t played in years. He is a man of faith who believes in the power of prayer and a positive
attitude. Those beliefs have brought him through difficult times. The Densmores do all they can to promote the work of the man who they say is “kind, humble, and dedicated to excellence in his art.”
Along with White’s family, they have formed “one good team.” As a young boy, he would retreat to the attic to draw and dream with colored pencils, crayons and paper in hand. The talent was never really in his hands though, it was deep within. Although it remained dormant for a while, it has emerged in brilliant color. With a computer, his creativity has been unleashed in pixels. Grateful for a second chance to pursue his dreams, he creates cosmic worlds far beyond this one and stunning designs that dance with color, shape, shadow and light. In the solace of his room, working on his computer, he is filled with peace, doing what he was meant to do and dreaming of things to come. To see more of his work, visit www.KevinWhiteArtist.com.