MARINE ON ST. CROIX — The potbellied wood-burning stove that heats Bob White’s studio here was bought for $600 a lot of years ago from what White describes as a “hippy-dippy hardware store” in south Minneapolis.
Cast of steel and carrying the soft curves and ornamental scrolls that suggest an artisan’s design, the vintage stove is an inefficient heater but a welcome tone-setter for a painter’s lair that is otherwise adorned with a mishmash of canvasses, oils, prints, photographs and books.
Inspired by the works of Winslow Homer, Ogden Pleissner and Alexis Jean Fournier, White labors in sporting art, a type that celebrates the impassioned travels of sportsmen and sportswomen who cast lines into crystalline streams, follow bird dogs through tall grass or otherwise pursue … life.
“Sporting art to me involves the environs of a sporting activity and the people who pursue their passions there,” White said. “In my paintings I try to relegate people to a minority position. The environ in which they appear is most important.”
A regular contributor to national magazines such as Gray’s Sporting Journal, Sporting Classics, Gun Dog, Ducks Unlimited and Fly Rod & Reel, among others, White is gaining a wider audience this month with a free-and-open-to-the-public exhibit of 36 of his original paintings at the Minneapolis Club’s Edward Curtis Gallery. A reception is 5-7 p.m. Nov. 15 at the club.
Impassioned from a young age about hunting and fishing and intrigued as well about art (he sold his first painting at 12), White as a kid was an avid reader of outdoor magazines.
The stories were great, he recalls. But the magazine illustrations by painters such as William Harden Foster and Arthur D. Fuller intrigued him most.
“The artwork is what captured me,” he said. “I always wanted to be the guy who painted for those magazines.”
Which — along with commission work and the sale of original paintings, prints and books — he does today.
But the journey from his boyhood meanderings along the Mississippi River in southern Illinois to his artist’s quarters in sleepy Marine on St. Croix has been circuitous, with far-flung detours through Alaska and Argentina.
“I took a lot of art classes in college, but in the end, I figured I better study something that could get me a job, so I majored in delinquency studies and became a youth counselor,” said White, 60.
The work put food on White’s table. But he longed to be around hunters and anglers and the adventures they pursued. So he took a job at the former Burger Brothers Sporting Goods store at 44th and France in Edina.
It was there that he feasted on tales about Alaska, its fish and the anglers who caught them.
“A friend had worked up there, guiding, and I finally decided it was time to listen to the advice I gave to kids I counseled — to follow my heart,” White said. “So I went to Alaska to work as a fly-fishing guide, something I’ve done now for 34 summers.”
A subsequent happenstance encounter with an outfitting company looking for a fly-fishing guide to work in Argentina landed White his first of many South American gigs.
So appreciated was he as a guide in both hemispheres that in 1988, Fly Rod & Reel magazine named him its national guide of the year.
All the while, White kept painting, working initially in watercolors (now mostly oils) and focusing on Alaska-based themes.
“Some of the first paintings I sold were to clients of the fishing lodge in Alaska,” he said. “I knew I got a painting right when a lodge client would say, ‘I’ve been there. That’s how I remember it.’ ”
Unlike illustrators of old-time Outdoor Life and Sports Afield magazines, however, whose covers often portrayed bears threatening hunters or anglers landing monstrous fish, White sought to compose more nuanced experiences afield.
The approach paid off. In addition to critical and commercial success, White is enshrined for his artwork in the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame in Hayward, Wis.
“When I started making more money painting than I did guiding,” he said. “That was a turning point.”
White sells his originals (the 36 paintings displayed at the Minneapolis Club this month are for sale), prints, books and notecards via his website (bobwhitestudio.com).
White’s wife, Lisa, oversees the business side of the operation and also composes a periodic newsletter that is e-mailed to what is by now a lengthy customer list.
“In addition to running the business side of the operation, Lisa is a very valuable critic of my art,” White said.
“All I do, really, is move paint around.”