From the Rink to the Smithsonian: Newfoundland Mi’kmaq Painter Nelson White Answers 20 Questions
ST. JOHN’S, NL — Nelson White always strives to bring something different and unique to his artistic work when he tackles a new painting.
“I rebel against portraiture,” said White, a Mi’kmaq painter band member of Flat Bay First Nation, also known as No’kmaq Village. “Kind of an artist statement and my whole thing is that the only real depictions of indigenous people have been vile savage or say, this scene, formal portraits. And that’s not what I’m doing. It’s not people I know. It’s not the people that are in my life. I paint people in my life. People that are interesting and funky and cool and stuff.”
The use of color is central to what makes White’s work a bit “funky” as a figurative painter. His profile as an artist in Newfoundland and Labrador and elsewhere has grown steadily in recent years. He was the first Indigenous artist to complete an Elbow Room artist residency at The Rooms in St. John’s. In 2020, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian added his “Veteran Elder” painting – a piece depicting American veteran Ellsworth Oakley – to its permanent collection.
“Too often a lot of artists think they have to be serious and dark and stark, and I don’t necessarily think that way. I want you to like my subjects. I want you to be somehow drawn to them and you say, ‘Hey, these are cool, these are interesting people.’ I use bright colors and I love the people I paint, so I want you to love them too.”
Growing up in western Newfoundland, where her father, Calvin, helped lead the movement to create the Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation, White received a lot of encouragement when it came to her artistic talents.
“I always painted and drew,” he recalls. “In a big, eclectic family, that was my 15 minutes. Everyone was very musical. Everyone was talented. … Mom and Dad would pull out my drawings when people came in and said, ‘Look, Nelson can draw. It’s something I’ve always been drawn to.”
He then studied visual arts in Stephenville and at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax. But much of his professional life has been devoted to hockey.
He enjoyed playing the sport as a youth and later found work behind the scenes – mostly as a scout – for the OHL’s Sudbury Wolves, Hockey Canada, Calgary Flames and its AHL affiliate, the Saint Flames. John, and NHL Central Scouting. White estimates he’s visited 300 rinks over the years. He has a Calder Cup ring from the AHL championship from the Saint John Flames in 2001 and a bronze medal at the 2000 World Junior Hockey Championships.
White loved working in hockey, but it was hard to pursue his passion for the art as well. Remarkably, it was only in the past seven years that White began to establish himself as a professional artist, realizing he needed a change. A pivot to a public sector job with regular hours of nine to five allowed him to fully embrace his artistic talents.
“I was the general manager of a non-profit organization and I worked 80 hours a week doing that, in addition to trying to play hockey. I was doing a lot of things and I don’t know if I was doing any particularly well. And it was kind of like, OK, well, what do I really want to do?… And the answer was to paint and be a painter.
1 . What is your full name?
My full name is Nelson Albert White.
2 . Where were you born?
I was born in Flat Bay, Newfoundland.
3 . Where do you live today?
I live in St. John’s, in Rabbittown.
4 . Who do you follow on social media?
I follow a lot of artists, local and international. Many figurative artists.
5 . What would people be surprised to learn about you?
I’m a goalie mask nerd and kind of a goalie mask expert. …Ken Dryden’s is a favorite, because he was my idol when I was a kid. But I love the art of goalie masks. I like the design. I like the styling. I’m just interested in art. In a team sport, it is the only piece of equipment that can be individually modified for one person. It reflects the personality of a man.
6 . What was your favorite year and why?
Aside from the year of marriage and the year of the child and stuff like that, it would probably be 2018. 2018 was the year I did the Identify festival. aboriginal culture
Festival) at Government House. I was the first Indigenous artist (to have a residency) at The Rooms. It was my getaway year in Newfoundland.
7 . What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done?
The hardest thing I’ve ever done is adapt my lifestyle to become an artist. I loved working in hockey, but I couldn’t put my energy into hockey and my energy into art. And I had to kind of say, “Well, I don’t do that anymore. I just walk away from that and leave that behind and throw my energy here.”
8 . Can you describe an experience that changed your life?
One experience was having this adult conversation with myself about what I wanted to be when I grew up in my 40s. When I was in my 40s, I had this conversation about what I really wanted to do.
9 . What is your greatest delicacy?
My greatest passion is books. I have books all over my house. I buy books, art books too.
ten . What is your favorite movie or book?
The book is hard. My favorite movie is probably a weird comedy called “My Favorite Year” starring Peter O’Toole. It’s just really funny and a sweet little story. It’s great to play this Errol Flynn character. … The guy who played Balki’s cousin (in “Perfect Strangers” on television, Mark Linn-Baker), he’s in.
11 . What do you like to listen to?
I have very eclectic taste. Listen to punk and pop and Frank Sinatra and Dolly Parton. Everything that happens on my iPod. It’s a real mix of things.
12 . How do you like to relax?
I watch TV with my family and my dog. We relax and enjoy a series.
13 . What are you reading or watching right now?
What I’m reading right now is “Razorblade Tears” by SA Cosby. It’s kind of a dark southern thriller. I love thrillers and he is a very good writer. … He’s just a young writer. He’s not famous yet. When they start making movies about that stuff, he’ll be really famous.
14 . What is your biggest fear?
I don’t know if I have a great fear. What stresses me out and makes me most anxious is being late. I don’t worry about anything except being five minutes late for something. I’d rather be an hour early than two minutes late.
15 . How would you describe your personal fashion sense?
Relaxed. I have lots of t-shirts. … Lots of T-shirts from years of sport and those years of receiving shirts. I have a lot of T-shirts with graphics, logos and designs on them. T-shirts and jeans.
16 . What is your most valuable asset?
This is an old tie clip I have from my grandfather (Augustus “Gus” White). … It was his tie clip. And I wear it to weddings and parties and everywhere I have fun, because my grandfather loved to party – loved to have a good time. I don’t wear it to funerals or anything like that. Any good event, I wear my grandfather’s tie clip.
17 . What physical or personality trait are you most grateful to a parent for?
Both my parents passed on a lot of things. My father’s determination. This inability to give up. This inability to let things go. I get that from my dad. And my mother (Frances) has a great sense of humor. My father too. … Our house laughed a lot, and I think I thank them both for that.
18 . What do you think is your best quality and what is your worst quality?
My best quality is to find the positive in everything. … My worst quality is that I have very little patience for stupidity. I have very little patience for people who say or do really stupid things… especially when they know the difference. Like Trumpers and all that. You know you are lying.
19 . What is your favorite place in the world?
Flat bay. My community. It is a warm and inviting community. Everyone knows your name, like “Cheers”. The view from my dad’s lawn is probably one of the best views in Newfoundland. … When you are home, you are home. There is a definite sense of being home.
20 . Who are the three people who would join you for the dinner party of your dreams?
Mine would be funny people. It would be like (author) Kurt Vonnegut and (actor and comedian) Groucho Marx, and maybe (actor and Monty Python sketch band member) John Cleese. People who would joke and be funny and talk fast all night. It’s the kind of night I’m going to enjoy. … I don’t want depth, darkness – I don’t need people putting me down. …I want people who are just going to be smart and funny, and just have a silly party.