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White on White

Memphis artist Mahaffey White reflects on 90 years of a life lived well.


Mahaffey White speaks like a painter, sprinkling names such as Pollock, Cezanne, Monet, and a few you've never heard of into the conversation and talking about learning how to look.

"To see is itself a creative act," she says with the practiced authority of a school teacher. There are maybe a dozen black-and- white photographs of landscapes spread across a table in front of her and she pauses before continuing.

"I thought for a while that I wrote that quote. It was rather embarrassing to find out I did not."

A month shy of her 90th birthday, the diminutive woman laughs. It is the sort of afternoon she loves: The sunlight sneaks into the Cooper-Young Gallery's back room in glittering streams. If she were not here she would probably be out traipsing through the woods with her camera, hiking over hills and sometimes crawling under things to get the shot she wants.

"In taking a picture, I'm thinking of composition. I try very hard to think of it in terms of a finished piece."

With her embroidered cardigan sweater and snowy white hair, White could be mistaken for just another grandmother. But the spry and energetic nonagenarian is probably one of Memphis' best-kept secrets.

Unlike some of her contemporaries, White has never really sought out gallery representation.

"She's one of those people that most folks don't know about," says David Hinkse, co-owner of the Cooper-Young Gallery. "She really is a Memphis treasure."

Once a jewelry designer and an associate art professor at Shelby State, White has shown her work, mostly metal, throughout the region and in New York for over 30 years. Then, about 10 years ago, she decided to take an introductory photography class taught by a friend. Photography has been her primary medium ever since.

Over the years, her work has been shown as part of the Memphis College of Art's 1996 alumni show, in solo shows at Christian Brothers University, and as part of Mayor Rout's permanent collection. This week an exhibit of her work opens at the Cooper-Young Gallery for a special 90th birthday show.

Just don't ask her to take your picture.

"When I tell people I'm a photographer, I apologize almost immediately," White says. "I'm not a real photographer. I couldn't do your portrait."

The Long and Winding Path

One Christmas when White was young, an aunt and uncle gave her and her sister a dollar.

The day was warm, with just a light dusting of snow on the ground.

"We immediately walked to the corner of Peabody and Cooper. There's something new there now, a photography studio, but it was a drugstore for many years," she recalls. With the money, White and her sister bought a Brownie camera.

"You didn't call it a box camera then. We called it a Kodak. We wanted a Kodak," she says.

"I was very interested in taking snapshots." Even though many of the pictures in her photo albums from that era were taken with the Brownie, photography wasn't a medium she pursued.

Born in Corinth, Mississippi, in 1911, White moved to Memphis a couple years later with her family. She attended art classes at one of the few city schools that had them at the time and struck up a friendship with her art teacher, a local painter.

Spending extra hours in art class on the weekdays and in classes on the weekends, she always knew she wanted to be involved in art.

"I designed and made my own clothes before I was out of grammar school," she says. "I intended to become a dress designer."

After graduating high school, she was accepted at the Art Institute of Chicago and spent 1929 taking first-year courses. Then the Great Depression hit.

"I had little knowledge of the stock market before that. The South had always been somewhat depressed," she explains.

Like many students at the time, she didn't want to be a financial drain on her family. She left school, came back home to Memphis, and got a job selling Victrola records. It didn't last long -- not only was the Depression still going strong, but radio was coming in and the Victrola records were going out.

At the time, her younger sister was working as a dental assistant and she got White a job at the office. She worked as a dental assistant for four years before she decided it was time for a change.

"I liked my work. I liked my life, but I decided that this is not what I'm about. I decided to go to New York."

It started as a vacation plan with a friend. But when the friend backed out and the trip fell apart, the independent young woman decided that she would move to the city instead.

Mahaffey White: designing a dress in her New York apartment in the Thirties.
"I always dreamed of going to big cities. When I was growing up, I thought, Oh, Memphis is just a country town." She didn't expect to come back.

White arrived in New York on her 24th birthday and presented a letter of introduction to Mary Barry, a former Memphian and a friend of a friend.

"Mary had made an arrangement with a friend to get rid of me if she found me too boring. Luckily that didn't happen." Instead, the two women spent the afternoon seeing the city from atop a double-decker bus and finding White a place to live. In the process, they became fast friends.

Once settled at a residence run by the Salvation Army, White supported herself with temporary jobs with the WPA program and as a shop girl for the Arnold Constable department store. She didn't have a regular schedule at Constable; the management would wait until after the store opened, and if there were enough customers, they would call White in to work a table of merchandise on the main floor. From that vantage point, she could see the lions outside the New York Public Library.

"I held on by my fingernails," she says of the time. "I went to New York with $100 borrowed from my mother. Designing clothes was still my real ambition."

Then, in 1936, she got a seasonal job at Henri Bendel, a Parisian clothing atelier. Customers would pick out the dresses they wanted from models and then White and her cohorts, sitting at long tables, would custom-make the dress to the customer's measurements.

"I was like Berthe, the sewing-machine girl," White says.

She also met her husband, an organist, that same year through a mutual friend still living in Memphis.

"He kept insisting that I call Richard White. He also insisted to Richard that he call me. ... If I had known that, I would never have been the first to call."

The pair found they had much in common. And, 63 years of marriage later, they still do. "Those were wonderful years," says White. "Meeting him had a lot to do with me enjoying New York." The couple went to concerts and museums; there wasn't a lot of money so most of the things they did were free.

White worked at Henri Bendel for three seasons, returning to Memphis during the summers to save money.

"There was nothing creative about [the work], but it was a great experience to learn dress-making the way it would be done in a Paris salon."

White then got a job with the Butterick Company.

"Between the two jobs, this was the better one in a lot of ways. It wasn't quite as manual," says White. She would be given a sketch and then would do a rough draping: developing the designer's ideas by laying muslin on a figure and making a pattern.

"I was an assistant designer in a sense, but they didn't call it that back then."

"Strangely, all the jobs I've had in my life have been jobs I've never had any particular specific experience for. They were all new avenues; I guess I rather liked it that way."

It was around this time that White found herself thinking more about art.

"I really began to appreciate modern art in a true sense," she says, "when I met Harriet Fitzgerald."

Fitzgerald founded the Abingdon Square Painters and taught a small group of people in her studio. White took classes and still exhibits her work with the group every year.

Meanwhile, White resigned from Butterick when World War II began; her husband was drafted and they had a young son and she began working from home. She taught dressmaking classes and tried to realize her lifelong dream of owning a dress design business.

"From the art standpoint, my business was successful," says White. "It was highly unsuccessful from a financial point of view."

Around 1950, White and her husband moved back to Memphis with their children. (They turned their apartment over to the Abingdon Square Painters for studio space; the group still uses the location for its shows.) Back in Memphis, White, instead of pursuing art or clothing design, became very involved in civic issues, especially education.

With John Spence, White helped found the Memphis Better Schools Committee. The group, which included Francis Coe and Dr. Hollis Price, worked for higher teacher salaries, smaller classes, and a fairer distribution of county tax dollars. White ended up with her picture in Life magazine.

"Oh, yes," she says. "It was quite accidental. In those days, you didn't go to a school board meeting and think you might have the chance to say something. You had to be on your feet before the gavel came down and just start talking."

"This day a number of people from Better Schools were there and I was chosen to read our statement. Some photographer was taking pictures, but I didn't know he was working for Life." The magazine was doing a photographic spread about people across the country working for changes in education.

"Someone in my household kindly penciled in a mustache and a goatee. I never asked who did it; raising children is hard enough without knowing who drew a mustache on your face."

Unfortunately, White says she also ended up spending most of her time driving back and forth from Nashville for committee meetings. There was little time for art or anything else.

"For the second time in my life, I said, 'This is not what I'm about.' I had forgotten who I was as an artist."

In her mid-50s, she went back to school full-time, majoring in metals at the Memphis Art Academy (now the Memphis College of Art).

"The clothes I was making before, they weren't just to adorn people. I was interested in the people," she says, sounding wistful. Taking what she had learned from Henri Bendel, the clothes were beautifully made, but the only people who could afford them weren't the people she was making them for. To her, jewelry solved that problem. She could create a work, and the people she had in mind when she created it could afford to buy it.

After two full years of classes and almost 40 years after she had first gone to college, White had her bachelor's degree.

"It wasn't enough. I wanted to work again." She thought, perhaps for practical reasons, perhaps because of her work with education, of teaching.

She got her master's from Memphis State (now the University of Memphis) and began teaching at the then-fledgling Shelby State. There, she taught jewelry making, drawing, anything; if the students wanted to learn it, White says the department would accommodate them.

"My seven years at Shelby State were the most meaningful of my career. It was the highlight of my life," she says.

She retired from the school in 1981. About 10 years later, she was back ... as a freshman.

White and Black-and-White


Patti Lechman met White while both of them were teaching at Shelby State. The two, along with another professor, would eat lunch together every day and have been friends ever since.

"After she retired, Mahaffey started doing pottery. I was teaching a ceramics class and she enrolled," says Lechman. But because the medium was waning in popularity, Lechman began teaching a beginner's photography class instead. White enrolled in that, too.

"Mahaffey always wants to be doing art," Lechman says. "Photography has really become her medium."

David Hinske agrees. "She has an artist's eye. Any one of us could be walking by a streambed and not see the art in it."

White's birthday show is composed of photographic prints from a recent trip to Scotland; most of her prints are a study in the contrasts between light and dark.

"There's a feeling of openness in her work," says Lechman, "tunnels or passages, light streaming through doorways. When you see her body of work, there is a consistent vision. It's very powerful."

In one of Lechman's favorite series, White used double exposures to show places she used to live in Memphis. Superimposed on those images are what is on those sites now, whether it's empty lots, other houses, or convenience stores.

Many of the Scotland photos, however, are of ruins.

"I like ruins," White explains. "I may be near to being one myself."

In the darkroom, though, White is a relentless perfectionist, often working on the same print for an entire class at a time, trying to get everything just so. She knows exactly what she wants and will work with the print until she gets it.

"She's made me a better photographer," says Carolyn Hinske, co-owner of the Cooper-Young Gallery. "In knowing her, particularly in the last year, I've become more critical of my own work."

Lechman says her beginning art students get two teachers for the price of one with White taking her class.

"Having the students see how she approaches what she does, the kinds of standards she sets for herself," says Lechman, "she's a real inspiration."

"I always say, 'I want to be like Mahaffey when I grow up,'" says Lechman. "She's a priceless, priceless treasure."

Carolyn Hinske says she expected White to act the way Georgia O'Keefe is rumored to have: crotchety, self-important, and mean. But that's just not the case.

"She is one of the most lovely ladies," says Carolyn Hinske. "Part of it is that she exudes such a positive energy. She gets so tickled and so excited over things. She doesn't really focus on the past. She'll talk about it if you ask, but she doesn't dwell on it. She's always talking about what she's going to do next."

White says she's interested in going back to other media; photography has fueled her imagination. But there's only so much time in a day.

"I was brought up close by," she says, gesturing toward Young Avenue. "This area is well known to me. It makes me feel like I've gone full circle, but I hope not.

"I have things ahead I still want to do."

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