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Cate White in her studio, Mendocino, CA, 2021.

George Adams Gallery: Where did you grow up? 

Cate White: Greenwood Ridge just outside of Boonville in Mendocino County. It was very blue collar, red neck – country people, Dust Bowl settlers who had been there for generations. My parents were back to the land hippies who moved there from Pennsylvania after a year living in Mexico, dropping out and dodging the draft.  I was a little between worlds with my family life and the whole culture of the community. I think the effect on me was that I was always aware that there were multiple world views and I saw through the illusion of all of them. But I was very connected to the school and the town, my friends, and I was not the kind of kid who couldn’t wait to get out of this small town. I liked drinking Coors and four wheeling, and I was fine staying there but my parents made me go to college. 

GAG: How was that? 

CW: I felt like a hick being around kids who were more sophisticated. 

GAG: Did you move to Oakland right after college? 

CW: No. In fact, I spent my entire twenties near where I grew up, on the Mendocino Coast where I am now. After I left college and the constant partying I’d been doing,  I realized I didn’t know who I was and that I needed to retreat to the woods, meditate, write and find some essential truth that I could live by. So I lived in a cabin in the woods my whole twenties writing obsessively, totally committed to the path and identity of being a writer. 
And then the writing became like a cage of language--not a complete enough mode of expression and connection. So at age 30 I quit writing which was the thing I had banked everything on. I figured I’d work in a gas station and be nothing. It was when I quit writing that I suddenly came to my senses and the visual world just came to life before me as it hadn’t since I was a very young child. It was a mystical awakening and an ecstatic two months of overwhelming beauty, color and form without mind. So that’s when I started painting.

GAG: How did you have the confidence not only to decide to be a writer, but to reject that and abruptly decide, at age 30 and without any training, to be an artist? And not only that, to keep at it after that initial rush of excitement?

CW: Yeah, the initial rush totally wore off and it was like being banished from the Garden. But here’s the thing: It was that first hit, the power of it and the beauty of it was so deeply affecting that it carried my faith. At the time, I thought that I had found my way back into the world and I decided to move to San Francisco and be an artist! Of course I knew nothing about how any of that worked. 

GAG: What were those early years like? 

CW: Well, the art world I witnessed at that time didn’t seem to be that interested in mystical visions. I realized there wasn’t any obvious place for me so I was really on my own for a very long time. But the memories and the periodic glimpses of that state of connection kept me going. 

GAG: And you had to navigate the art world at least to some degree. 

CW: I did want to be part of a larger cultural conversation so I slowly started figuring out how to make that happen. I did go and get an MFA which was not so much about careerism but because it would enable me to participate in at least part of the conversation. 
I was planning to go to SFAI but I went to this panel discussion where I heard the chair of this other program (Mike Grady, Art and Consciousness at John F Kennedy University in Berkeley) speak, and he was speaking my language, he was talking about what my concerns were. So I went there instead of SFAI. I’m not immune to careerism and ego gratification and I knew that if I went to a school that was more career oriented and competitive that it would infect me. I’m susceptible to that and I was afraid it would have extinguished the creative spark that I had found and that I absolutely needed to survive. 

GAG: You ended up living in West Oakland. That seems like a big contrast from Boonville. 

CW: No, not at all actually. The social norms of the Black underclass are in many ways very connected to the social norms of the White underclass. Living there I felt like I could be myself again after spending most of my adult life around educated white people where I felt like there was a big part of myself that I couldn’t show because it was inappropriate or just not understood. 

GAG: Do you consider yourself  a political artist? Or perhaps a realist of sorts? 

CW: I’m a seeker and my whole search has been for an antidote to alienation. Ending up in Oakland and returning a little bit to the culture of my childhood by being immersed in marginalized Black culture, this was a big turning point for me. The alienation I was experiencing, the lack of meaning and all of that, is not the human condition. It’s the condition of people with too much power, power to control their environment, to control their image and so forth. What I remembered living in Oakland was that the meaning of life was life itself, it was death around the corner, powerlessness, vulnerability, things that people living on the edge of society see as a normal fact of life, and are, in fact, the actual facts of life.  I processed that through my paintings and in that sense I suppose they are political. 

GAG: You have a YouTube show, “How Do You Paint.” What’s that all about?

CW: It is an outlet for my improv/performative self. I probably would have been a standup comic if I wasn’t so shy and can’t stay up late. Plus, I get so in my head and perfectionistic and uptight when I’m alone in the studio painting but when I have an audience, the camera, I loosen up. When I paint for a show the painting doesn’t have the same preciousness because the art is the show. Like the ‘Olympia’ painting, I did most of it on camera and you can see that it’s looser. I like that. A lot of the time when I’m making a painting the fear sets in and I clamp down, and that doesn’t happen in front of the camera.

GAG: Would you say that your paintings reflect an interior dialogue? Your narratives almost always have what I would call anecdotal asides. For example, I think of the rats in “Weez in the Cell” as being literally and figuratively like a subversive Greek chorus.

CW: Yeah, part of it is that I have a lot of different, competing parts. I’m super introverted, and also performative and extroverted and so at my best with painting I’m fluidly moving between these parts allowing them all to have their voice.


GAG: Influences?

CW: I’ve gone through phases. In the beginning it was Courtney Love, Bergman and Antonin Artaud, people who are maybe like martyrs of the mind-body split. Then I got into the post-modern deconstructivists, people like Chris Kraus and the French theorists, but after a while that felt very soulless and self-indulgent. And then I end up in West Oakland and it was like Oh not everybody feels this way. A lot of people feel very connected, connected to the ground and to each other.  I started reading James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, Wendell Berry. Most recently though, and this may sound so passe, I’ve gotten into R.D. Lang, Wilhelm Reich, and Carl Jung. They’re actually very connected to indigenous ways of seeing things. The psyche affecting the material world, shape shifting which is just neuro-plasticity – if you can change your consciousness you can actually change your brain chemistry. I love Russell Brand for the way he connects the psyche and the political. As for artists, Guston, Kerry James Marshall, Chris Johansen, Ben Shahn, Joan Snyder. Also outsider artists like Ramirez, Finster, Taylor – not Darger though.


GAG: What about the Bay Area? As an environment, not as a scene? It seems to suit you.


CW: As far as the art scene, I only have a vague sense of how all that operates, and I can’t seem to really care that much.


As for the environment, I can’t live in the middle of big cities anymore, that just wrecks my nervous system. It’s better for me to have a little bit of yard space, nature and not a lot of noise. West Oakland was really regenerative for me but last year I hit the wall with mid-life exhaustion and quit my day job as a gardener and moved back up here to Mendocino to paint full time. I was seriously thinking about moving to Upstate New York but then I realized that I have a really good set up here in Mendo, but it is kind of like a weird Utopia that can feel a bit unreal.


GAG: What would it take to make you feel like a successful artist? Do you feel like a successful artist?


CW: Well I’m in it as a devotional practice, as a path to liberation. Some people meditate all the time and go on meditation retreats and spend their lives seeking an end to suffering and some truth, and I go to the studio. So I guess success ultimately would be becoming enlightened, but barring that, success is just surrendering to the path and milking everything I can out of it. And the way that the career part plays into this is as a container for me to do this. I need that because part of the process of making art is the dialogue that comes out of it. As long as I am making enough money to live and there’s meaningful conversation, meaningful in that it feeds back into my own development, then that’s all I need.

Cate in the Studio

Cate White in her studio in Mendocino, CA, 2021.

Our upcoming group exhibition will include paintings by the California-based artist, Cate White, who we’ve so enjoyed getting to know. By way of introduction, Cate sat down with us to talk about how she found her way to painting, her YouTube show, "How Do You Paint," and the “mystical visions” that inspire her work.

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Cate White in her studio in Mendocino, CA, 2021.

George Adams Gallery:   Where did you grow up? 

Cate White:   Greenwood Ridge just outside of Boonville in Mendocino County. It was very blue collar, red neck – country people, Dust Bowl settlers who had been there for generations. My parents were back to the land hippies who moved there from Pennsylvania after a year living in Mexico, dropping out and dodging the draft.  I was a little between worlds with my family life and the whole culture of the community. I think the effect on me was that I was always aware that there were multiple world views and I saw through the illusion of all of them. But I was very connected to the school and the town, my friends, and I was not the kind of kid who couldn’t wait to get out of this small town. I liked drinking Coors and four wheeling, and I was fine staying there but my parents made me go to college. 

GAG:   How was that? 

CW:   I felt like a hick being around kids who were more sophisticated. 

GAG:   Did you move to Oakland right after college? 

CW:   No. In fact, I spent my entire twenties near where I grew up, on the Mendocino Coast where I am now. After I left college and the constant partying I’d been doing, I realized I didn’t know who I was and that I needed to retreat to the woods, meditate, write and find some essential truth that I could live by. So I lived in a cabin in the woods my whole twenties writing obsessively, totally committed to the path and identity of being a writer. 
And then the writing became like a cage of language--not a complete enough mode of expression and connection. So at age 30 I quit writing which was the thing I had banked everything on. I figured I’d work in a gas station and be nothing. It was when I quit writing that I suddenly came to my senses and the visual world just came to life before me as it hadn’t since I was a very young child. It was a mystical awakening and an ecstatic two months of overwhelming beauty, color and form without mind. So that’s when I started painting.

GAG:   How did you have the confidence not only to decide to be a writer, but to reject that and abruptly decide, at age 30 and without any training, to be an artist? And not only that, to keep at it after that initial rush of excitement?

CW:   Yeah, the initial rush totally wore off and it was like being banished from the Garden. But here’s the thing: It was that first hit, the power of it and the beauty of it was so deeply affecting that it carried my faith. At the time, I thought that I had found my way back into the world and I decided to move to San Francisco and be an artist! Of course I knew nothing about how any of that worked. 

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Cate White, Remote Olympia, 2019. Acrylic, latex, spraypaint, glitter, collage on canvas, 34 x 60 inches.

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Interior shot of Cate White' studio in Oakland, CA, 2021.

GAG:   What were those early years like? 

CW:   Well, the art world I witnessed at that time didn’t seem to be that interested in mystical visions. I realized there wasn’t any obvious place for me so I was really on my own for a very long time. But the memories and the periodic glimpses of that state of connection kept me going. 

GAG:   And you had to navigate the art world at least to some degree. 

CW:   I did want to be part of a larger cultural conversation so I slowly started figuring out how to make that happen. I did go and get an MFA which was not so much about careerism but because it would enable me to participate in at least part of the conversation. 
I was planning to go to SFAI but I went to this panel discussion where I heard the chair of this other program (Mike Grady, Art and Consciousness at John F Kennedy University in Berkeley) speak, and he was speaking my language, he was talking about what my concerns were. So I went there instead of SFAI. I’m not immune to careerism and ego gratification and I knew that if I went to a school that was more career oriented and competitive that it would infect me. I’m susceptible to that and I was afraid it would have extinguished the creative spark that I had found and that I absolutely needed to survive. 

GAG:   You ended up living in West Oakland. That seems like a big contrast from Boonville. 

CW:   No, not at all actually. The social norms of the Black underclass are in many ways very connected to the social norms of the White underclass. Living there I felt like I could be myself again after spending most of my adult life around educated white people where I felt like there was a big part of myself that I couldn’t show because it was inappropriate or just not understood. 

Text and image 3

Cate White instructing on her YouTube series How Do You Paint, 2021.

GAG:   Do you consider yourself a political artist? Or perhaps a realist of sorts? 

CW:   I’m a seeker and my whole search has been for an antidote to alienation. Ending up in Oakland and returning a little bit to the culture of my childhood by being immersed in marginalized Black culture, this was a big turning point for me. The alienation I was experiencing, the lack of meaning and all of that, is not the human condition. It’s the condition of people with too much power, power to control their environment, to control their image and so forth. What I remembered living in Oakland was that the meaning of life was life itself, it was death around the corner, powerlessness, vulnerability, things that people living on the edge of society see as a normal fact of life, and are, in fact, the actual facts of life.  I processed that through my paintings and in that sense I suppose they are political. 

GAG:   You have a YouTube show, “How Do You Paint.” What’s that all about?

CW:   It is an outlet for my improv/performative self. I probably would have been a standup comic if I wasn’t so shy and could stay up late. Plus, I get so in my head and perfectionistic and uptight when I’m alone in the studio painting but when I have an audience, the camera, I loosen up. When I paint for a show the painting doesn’t have the same preciousness because the art is the show. Like the ‘Olympia’ painting, I did most of it on camera and you can see that it’s looser. I like that. A lot of the time when I’m making a painting the fear sets in and I clamp down, and that doesn’t happen in front of the camera.

"I’m in it as a devotional practice, as a path to liberation. Some people meditate all the time and go on meditation retreats and spend their lives seeking an end to suffering and some truth, and I go to the studio."

GAG:   Would you say that your paintings reflect an interior dialogue? Your narratives almost always have what I would call anecdotal asides. For example, I think of the rats in “Weez in the Cell” as being literally and figuratively like a subversive Greek chorus.

CW:   Yeah, part of it is that I have a lot of different, competing parts. I’m super introverted, and also performative and extroverted and so at my best with painting I’m fluidly moving between these parts allowing them all to have their voice.

GAG:   Influences?

CW:   I’ve gone through phases. In the beginning it was Courtney Love, Bergman and Antonin Artaud, people who are maybe like martyrs of the mind-body split. Then I got into the post-modern deconstructivists, people like Chris Kraus and the French theorists, but after a while that felt very soulless and self-indulgent. And then I end up in West Oakland and it was like 'Oh not everybody feels this way.' A lot of people feel very connected, connected to the ground and to each other. I started reading James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, Wendell Berry. Most recently though, and this may sound so passe, I’ve gotten into R.D. Lang, Wilhelm Reich, and Carl Jung. They’re actually very connected to indigenous ways of seeing things. The psyche affecting the material world, shape shifting which is just neuro-plasticity – if you can change your consciousness you can actually change your brain chemistry. I love Russell Brand for the way he connects the psyche and the political. As for artists, Guston, Kerry James Marshall, Chris Johansen, Ben Shahn, Joan Snyder. Also outsider artists like Ramirez, Finster, Taylor – not Darger though.

GAG:   What about the Bay Area? As an environment, not as a scene? It seems to suit you.

CW:   As far as the art scene, I only have a vague sense of how all that operates, and I can’t seem to really care that much.

As for the environment, I can’t live in the middle of big cities anymore, that just wrecks my nervous system. It’s better for me to have a little bit of yard space, nature and not a lot of noise. West Oakland was really regenerative for me but last year I hit the wall with mid-life exhaustion and quit my day job as a gardener and moved back up here to Mendocino to paint full time. I was seriously thinking about moving to Upstate New York but then I realized that I have a really good set up here in Mendo, but it is kind of like a weird Utopia that can feel a bit unreal.

GAG:   What would it take to make you feel like a successful artist? Do you feel like a successful artist?

CW:   Well I’m in it as a devotional practice, as a path to liberation. Some people meditate all the time and go on meditation retreats and spend their lives seeking an end to suffering and some truth, and I go to the studio. So I guess success ultimately would be becoming enlightened, but barring that, success is just surrendering to the path and milking everything I can out of it. And the way that the career part plays into this is as a container for me to do this. I need that because part of the process of making art is the dialogue that comes out of it. As long as I am making enough money to live and there’s meaningful conversation, meaningful in that it feeds back into my own development, then that’s all I need.

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Cate White in Oakland, CA, 2021.