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 David Omar White  (1927 - 2009)

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Lived/Active: Massachusetts/Wisconsin      Known for: painting, mural painting, cartoons

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Obituary. The Boston Globe July 17, 2009

Artist, muralist, sculptor, political cartoonist, children's book writer and illustrator, teacher, adventurer, raconteur, bon vivant: David Omar White was all those things.

Just Omar to most, he created works of art in many mediums and styles and is represented in private collections and galleries.

His murals at the Casablanca Restaurant in Harvard Square of scenes from the film of that name immediately come to mind.

"The Casablanca bar was Omar's shrine," said Ken Botwright of Santa Barbara, Calif., a former Globe reporter who was among "the writers, newspapermen, and TV guys who hung out at the bar with Omar in the '60s."

Mr. White's paintings then were "explosions of color," Botwright said. "They were flamboyant and surrealistic. When I asked him where he got his inspiration, he said, `Well, I paint an alternative universe.' "

In pubs, he always drew admirers. "He'd draw quick cartoons or sketched people on cocktail napkins or anything else handy," Botwright said, "a sweet guy bubbling with optimism and good humor."

Mr. White, who created an anti-establishment Cambridge-based cartoon strip, The White Rabbit for the alternative press from 1968 to 1992, died June 26 at Massachusetts General Hospital of pulmonary fibrosis resulting from exposure to asbestos during World War II. He was 82.

For a number of years, he used oxygen, scooters, and wheelchairs to get around, riding buses and trains on his own.  With his long, white beard and twinkly eyes, he reminded people of Santa Claus.

He lived in senior housing in Somerville, where he converted his bedroom into his studio and slept in the living room, until recently getting up at 4 a.m. to paint.  "My favorite work is the next one I'm going to do," he wrote in a recent letter to a young friend for a school project.

The long run of his Rabbit cartoon testifies to his genius, friends said.  Cambridge artist Sally Williamson, Mr. White's longtime companion, described it as "a one-character strip about a rabbit who lived on the White House lawn and commented on the antics of its tenants."

In the Globe in 1982, Omar said: "The cartoon and caricature are forms that rely on such things as humor, satire, and plain old common sense. They're forms that can reach everyone."

A champion of the underdog, he sculpted a large figure of a police officer in riot gear, after watching a protest in Cambridge in the 1960s.  If it had been meant to antagonize police, it did not, said William Davis of Cambridge, a former Globe reporter. "Cops started stopping by to look at the work in progress, and some even modeled for it."

Mr. White painted his first Casablanca mural in 1970 when the restaurant was in the rear of the Brattle Theatre, said its owner, Sari Abul-Jubein.  In 1990, the restaurant and Mr. White's murals were dismantled for a move adjacent to the theater.  They were reinstalled when the restaurant reopened in 1991.

At his request, Mr. White was compensated "in kind," with food and drinks, Abul-Jubein said.

A music lover, Mr. White published The Symphony Sketchbook of David Omar White in 1974.  The book depicted members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Boston and at Tanglewood.

His artwork took many forms, collectors and gallery operators said. Nick Mitropoulos of Cambridge, a collector since the 1970s, recalled portraits Mr. White had done of his children. "The abstract stuff came later," Mitropoulos said. "As Omar got older, his art got better, more alive and more vibrant."

When it was in Boston, the Genovese-Sullivan Gallery was the main exhibitor of Mr. White's work.

Near death, "Omar worked right up to the last minute," said David Sullivan of Andover. "There was real clarity and power to his work.  If Omar started out earlier in fine arts, he would have been widely known."

Mr. White's early life was as colorful as his paintings.  He was born in Appleton, Wis.  His father was a civil engineer working on land reclamation with the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression and moved his young family around at lot, said Janice Gibbons of St. Paul, Mr. White's sister.

In his letter to the young friend for the school project, Mr. White wrote that he "started drawing at the age of 3 in the hospital when I was too sick to do anything else and felt very vulnerable.

All the nurses cooed and said, `You're going to be an artist when you grow up!' I lapped up their admiration and decided to be an artist when I grew up and I've never looked back."

Mr. White would regale friends about growing up on his own in Halliday, N.D., working on ranches, riding horses, and traveling around the country hitchhiking, hopping freight trains, or driving a rickety, old car.

He never graduated from high school because he moved so much and lacked one history course for his diploma.

At 17, he joined the Navy and was sent to Manila.  He was discharged in 1946, after he had been exposed to asbestos used to coat and preserve ships that were being mothballed, according to Bob Jolkowski of Arlington, an inventor and longtime friend.  The Veterans Administration later compensated him.

In 1947, with funds from the GI bill, he studied at the Arts Center School in Los Angeles, and from 1948 to 1951 at Claremont Graduate School in Claremont, Calif.

At Claremont, he became a protege of the artist Henry Lee McFee, and Mr. White's self- portrait was accepted for a national competition of student work by the Addison Gallery in Andover.

In 1952, he joined the merchant marine and served for a year.  When his ship docked in Boston, he visited the Addison and, Williamson said, "decided to put his roots down."

When funds were short, he took jobs washing dishes and working in a gallery.

Friends like Rose Stout and her husband gave him space in her large Somerville home, where Mr. White lived and had a studio for 25 years.

Mr. White was twice married and divorced.

He wooed Sally Williamson for 23 years, she said. "We did not live together, even though, or perhaps because, we loved each other." Their days began and their evenings ended with one calling the other.

Over the years, Mr. White taught at a number of schools, most recently at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

"My art is based on what feels right," he wrote in the letter. "I don't compete with God or nature. . . . I feel that if I copy the creator, I'm bound to come out second best."

In addition to Williamson and his sister, Mr. White leaves another sister, Sally Mathias of Bloomington, Minn.; sons Nathaniel of Massachusetts and Jonathan of Paris; daughters Karren Sanborn of Lynchburg, Va., and Amy Pratt of Greene, R.I.; his former wife, Ann Arnold of Watertown; and two grandchildren.

A celebration of Mr. White's life has been held.

Credit: Gloria Negri, Globe Staff

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