Nurse-turned-artist Emmy White

Bright with saturated, intense color, wavy lines, with an almost cartoonlike feel. Joyful. Thoughtful.

Emmy White’s subjects are sometimes women with books, like “The Fantasy Reader,” a book club member featured on the cover of the March Minnesota Women’s Press.

White paints with opaque watercolors. Her technique has a dense, more layered look than the traditional, transparent style. Her work has an almost dreamlike quality that comes from memory.

One of her teachers challenged her class to put away the photographs they were using as subject guides. Instead, he encouraged them to paint from memory.

“I was holding onto those photographs, trying to paint from the real world,” White says. “I thought I didn’t have anything inside. I panicked and thought, ‘I can’t do this.’ And then, bam! A painting came out. It was one of those moments.”

An internal space

White began taking painting classes and workshops in 1997, after retiring “for the first time,” she says, from a career in nursing.

Even though her parents encouraged her artistic skills when she was growing up in Pennsylvania, when it was time for her to go to college, her father took her aside and said, “You know, you’ll have to earn a living.” This was in the 1950s, “so, I became a nurse,” White says, getting her degree from the University of Minnesota. “But,” she says, “I always had my watercolors with me.”

As a nurse, she worked in a crisis center at the Hennepin County Medical Center. Sometimes, if her night shift was quiet, she would do a small portrait of a staff member who was working with her.

But she says, it was poetry that helped draw her into painting in a more serious way, bringing her more into an “internal space.”

She first took a poetry writing class at Metropolitan State University, and then joined a poetry group with other health care providers. Reading Natalie Goldberg’s book “Writing Down the Bones” with her poetry group was a turning point for White.

“That is really what got me into writing poetry about my feelings. I honor that period of time so much,” she says of this group that met from 1994 until 2010. “It was so important in my life.”

Although she doesn’t write poetry anymore, she says the practice influences her painting. It gave her “courage to work from feelings,” she says.

Social painter

White has a studio space in the Northrup King Building in northeast Minneapolis, but she doesn’t actually paint there. “I need people around me, all that energy is a part of my work,” she says.

So she paints on Wednesday mornings in a church basement with a group of about 10 people. In the summer months, she paints with a larger, plein air (painting outdoors) group. “It’s become such a big part of my life, it’s either a passion or an addiction,” she laughs. “It keeps me out of trouble.”

“I never went to art school; I’m a nurse,” White says. “I don’t know if I use [color] correctly, but I like bright colors, so that’s what comes out. I don’t admire these paintings of mine very much, but it’s good for me.”

Joyfulness seeps out, too. It surprises her when people tell her she must be a joyful person. “‘Not particularly,’ I say. I don’t know why it comes out that way.” Although reflecting further, White wonders if this is her mother’s influence. “She was funny. It’s wonderful for me to think about honoring her in this way. She would love this,” White says of the joy and humor that comes out in her paintings.

White’s paintings often tell stories – whether it’s a memory of her book group members, of driving home on a snowy night or seeing a girl wrapped up in scarves as she rides her bike in an alley. Sometimes she paints in response to tragedy, such as Hurricane Katrina, the Interstate 35W bridge collapse or the Boston Marathon bombing. “I express myself in painting,” she says.

At 76, White doesn’t really care if her artwork is perfect or saleable. She just puts it out into the world.

“When I’m doing that work – memory or story – I feel the best about my work. It’s not necessarily about making a good painting. It doesn’t always happen,” she says. “You can’t force it, but it’s like a gift that comes to you.”

Emmy White currently belongs to two book groups and recommends these books by women:
Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander