Artist Deirdre White mixes colors on her art palette in her art studio on Thursday. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

SF Lives: Painting under pressure

Painting has always provided White a way through life’s inevitabilities

Painter Deirdre White is among the City College of San Francisco instructors informed just before the holiday that their spring classes would be cut.

“As far as losing 50 percent of my income and our benefits. I know we’ll be ok,” she said of herself and her husband. “But it’s much bigger than me. I feel so angry about what the state and country are doing to public education. There are times I can’t sleep…I have a knot in my stomach all the time.”

Painting has always provided White a way through life’s inevitabilities and her current moment, hustling to replace lost wages and medical coverage, is no exception. But as she prepares for two exhibits in 2020, she’s also facing down the planned development of The Farm, at the intersection where 280 meets 101, where she keeps studio space to make large canvas oil paintings with a baroque take on our urban landscape.

“I’ve been lucky to have the space I’ve had to make this work,” she said, gesturing toward a series of paintings depicting The City’s ubiquitous tarpaulin covered shopping carts and other four-wheeled rigs. White paints and lives on the Mission/Potrero Hill border, the vortex of over-gentrification and homeless encampments. She is constantly photographing then painting her view, which heightens the details of the tableaus some San Franciscans carry on their backs and in wheel-around carts. But White doesn’t paint the people, just the carts and their contents, and the imaginary or heightened landscapes that accentuate the dimensions of the materials.

“I was interested in the draperies and the folds I was seeing. It looks Biblical, like a painting. I thought ‘I want to do something with that,’” she said.

Artist Deirdre White paints and lives on the Mission/Potrero Hill border, the vortex of over-gentrification and homeless encampments. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

White is troubled by the circumstances of her neighbor’s lives yet she doesn’t flinch from the view.

“What I’m doing is spending time with the picture. I tell my students this all the time but when you’re spending time, hours, weeks, days with something, the more you look, the more you see,” she said. “The act of painting is an act of devotion of really seeing and spending time with what’s there.”

The beauty she sees and illuminates with every brush stroke, stands in stark contrast to the way the carts and their contents, worldly and personal possessions, are handled by the police and the Department of Public Works, but that’s my take, not White’s.

“The first carts I photographed were right outside here. I started photographing before the aggressive sweeps,” she said.

“There was a kind of tent city for awhile. When the weather gets really extreme we figure out what’s extra in the house, blankets, tarps… If you live here you adapt,” she said. “But people come here and you realize, they’re aghast.”

The painting, as art often does, works on several layers, not only serving as a salve for a wounded city and population but White’s own trajectory.

Artist Deirdre White touches up a painting in her art studio on Thursday., Dec. 5, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

“It’s just the way I process the world,” she said. “My dad is Mormon and I grew up with a lot of pioneer stories, pictures of the West, and how that notion of the “land of plenty,’ has kinda dried up. With the carts, I started to think about that in terms of that lineage, the carts piled up with possessions and there’s nowhere to go.”

White’s parents married and fled Salt Lake City for San Francisco where White was born. She was raised in Berkeley then moved with her family to the Philadelphia area where she graduated from Tyler (Now the Tyler School of Art and Architecture at Temple University).

“I grew up in the West, my mom’s family is extremely outdoorsy and we spent a lot of time in tents, cooking in the dirt and stuff.”

After an artist’s residency in Portland, she moved here and has lived with her husband, Tom Heyman, a musician with roots in Philly; they’ve lived in the same apartment for 17 years. Teaching studio art for 15 years at CCSF and at other campuses, she also lectures at UC Davis where she received her MFA. From 2008 to 2015, White cared for her mother who was living with Alzheimer’s disease.

In that same window of time, “Things on the streets were getting really bad. At some point, I started to gravitate to the imagery of the carts. I started to tell myself stories about families who migrated West and the whole legacy and idea of mobility, the myth and illusion of mobile home living, car culture in California. I started to put it together,” she said.

She moved her mother out of a mobile home in Folsom and into assisted living in Walnut Creek while teaching at two and three area colleges at a time.

“My paintings got bigger; I needed a place to put that stuff. It was eating me alive,” she said. “I knew the paintings were in some part about her and caring for her. After she passed in 2015, there was this feeling of urgency, like I had to make up for lost time…I gained a very real sense of my own mortality and started thinking about how I might only have 20 good years left to paint. Maybe my hands will be gnarled with arthritis for example and I won’t be able to hold a brush; or worse, of course. But the creative life I live, I live in honor of her.”

White’s paintings will be on view beginning Jan. 31 at Ampersand International Arts in Dogpatch. Her teaching schedule and benefits remain in the balance.

“You don’t necessarily get the City College experience at other colleges. In a class of 25, you’ll have students with the broadest possible cognitive abilities, ages, socio-economic backgrounds, ethnicities, and gender identities in one room and they’re working together,” she said. “ You might have a student who can’t get to class because he’s caring for his grandparents and younger siblings at the same time.”

The experience has helped her appreciate her own privilege. “It sounds like a cliche but it’s really true: they teach me. They’re sharing their lives with me, it literally enriches my life,” she said. “ It’s exhausting, but it makes my life better.”

Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” A guest columnist, her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Follow her at and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan.

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