Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

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Watie White

On Work

I grew up in the country, where we lacked running water. We used a wood stove to cook and heat our home. A daily chore was cutting and splitting wood. When I found my studio, it came with a wood shed in the yard, and I immediately felt pulled to look and study the wood. It felt sculptural, bearing the marks of the labor and nature that made it.

In 2002, my wife gave birth to a beautiful and wonderful baby boy, but the pregnancy was not without its trials. The premature labor was long and hard, and it left her bedridden for a month. Raising a child is unending work, even in the case of a son as kind, smart, and funny as my Simon. Or his sister.

Labor also means to me insulation from work too difficult to attempt. My brother Jonah used a tractor to burn the trash we removed from my parents’ house as my father underwent treatment for pancreatic cancer. I remember what a relief this labor was, and how it felt to sweat and toil. We yearned for catharsis and a measure of revenge in those flames.

My brother Mark carries with him grief and the legacy of the difficult relationship we all had with my father. The past was uncomfortable and the future uncertain. I always assumed that Mark moved home to prove something to my parents about how he wasn’t a screw-up, that he was a good father and brother. I’m not sure they ever recognized him for it and as my father died, this opportunity ran out. Mark cared daily for our mother as she faded over the years. When I think of him, I hope he at least made some peace with her and that he found what he came back for.

Work equalizes us all. With its aspirations and connection to physical frailty, work brings to us a common humanity more sincere and true than our intellect. Labor is a punishment, a necessary evil. It is also a daily meditation. While reading Sandy Solomon’s “Diary from a tomato cannery, 1912,” I feel this common humanity. In Toi Derricotte’s “On the reasons I Loved Telly the Fish,” I feel the transformation of mindless labor and wasted money into fundamental love in all its importance. I find both of these poems humbly, truly beautiful.

Image list:
Log Den, Oil on Canvas, 40"x60", 2009
Bedridden, Linocut, 14"x11", 2002
just before nine, Linocut, 8"x12", 2002
Cleaning with Fire, Linocut 11"x17", 2006
Grief (mark), Linocut, 12"x14", 2006