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Omaha Magazine

Where Art Meets Appetite: Watie White Sets the Table

May 27, 2021 03:56PM ● By Katy Spratte Joyce
waite white, celeste butler, camille voorhees in greenhouse

Photo by Bill Sitzmann

Six figures. That was the budget for the artwork and curation for the Kimpton Cottonwood Hotel project. Six figures thoughtfully poured into the Nebraska art scene in 2020. Six-figures that are especially impactful in a year with an unprecedented global pandemic, which saw art sales dwindle as many curbed their discretionary spending. 

 Artist and curator Watie White was tapped by the local ownership group to curate the hotel’s entire art collection. What transpired was a labor of love that paid special attention to detail while honoring the historic property, and a billet-doux of sorts to Nebraska artists. The redevelopment features artwork exclusively produced by artists from Omaha and Lincoln. White started working on this effort in October 2019, beginning with a tour of the Bemis Art Auction with local developer Jay Lund. On his collaboration with White, Lund joked in a phone interview that “he [White] did all the heavy lifting; my part was the fun part. We wanted all local art in this hotel, to authentically represent the uniqueness of Omaha and the Blackstone District.”  

White, a well-known artist who has called Omaha home since 2006, has enjoyed many successes since his latest Midwest move. Recently, he was featured at KANEKO, in a solo exhibit combining works from his notable 100 People public art project with four new massive woodcutting pieces.

“Putting together the collection at the Cottonwood was an incredibly rewarding experience,” he said. “Serving as a connection and liaison between the hotel and the artists of Omaha and Lincoln allowed a great many people to be exhibited permanently and publicly in a context that they’d hadn’t been in before. To have the collection come together just as the world went into pandemic quarantine provided a spark of connection when it was needed vitally.”

The entire project consists of 71 different pieces from 20 individual artists and nine from the curator himself. Of note are the artworks chosen by White to adorn the Cottonwood’s three food and beverage spaces. 

“Each of the spaces have very different presences…the spaces and architecture went a long way in setting the table for the artwork that was to happen in there,” White said. 

The main floor features the combined Petit Orleans and The Orleans Room. “[It] feels so much a part of the public life of the hotel,” White said. “Like I want to meet someone there for an afternoon tea or a cocktail with lunch.” 

On a tour of the property, White highlighted a piece by Camille Voorhees, located in the cafe. Voorhees, is a University of Nebraska at Omaha studio art teacher and an artist who focuses on fine art with printmaking and fibers. A 24” by 36” fabric and thread work, “Constellation,” was described by White as “really beautiful and really special.” 

Another noteworthy item found here is a quilt-like piece by Celeste Butler, which, according to White, tied in architectural elements of the hotel. “She took patterns from both the rooftop drains and the decorative railing in the old marble staircase,” he said. “She also dyed the fabric with cottonwood leaves and iron.” 

 Butler, a 2017 fellow at The Union for Contemporary Art, contributed multiple works to the project. “A major part of my fiber art practice is to preserve history, capture the story and to bridge the past with the present,” she said.

The Cottonwood Bar provides a perfect canvas for two special commissioned projects, which is unique as most of the art picked for the property was sourced from existing works. White explained that this helps artists sell what they have already created and makes room for them to focus on new pieces. 

Jamie Burmeister crafted a 3D wood-and-metal piece, which White shared was based on work Burmeister had made for a show in Mexico and was inspired by the architecture of the building. Roughly 48” by 48”, the mix of wood, paint, and cast bronze figures adorn a significant wall near the entrance to the bar bathrooms. In his original notes on the notion for the piece, White added that “the figures will be reacting to the wood construction,” which is obvious in the final slightly whimsical iteration, named “House 05012001.” 

Another White favorite is a barcode portrait (known simply as “QR Code Bernard Schimmel”) by Scott Blake at the entrance to the Cottonwood; for those not familiar with Omaha sandwich lore, Schimmel has been credited as part of the team who brought the Reuben sandwich into existence at the original Blackstone Hotel.  

“Scott had been working with barcodes and QR codes to make images with lots of embedded information in them. It was my suggestion to do one of Schimmel for the hotel, but it was very much in keeping with his previous work. The image of [Schimmel] from his cookbook is created with 40 different QR codes, each which, when scanned with your smartphone, take you to recipes, articles, and Reuben/Omaha stuff. There are also a few Easter eggs in there which bring up a coupon for a free drink or a free Reuben sandwich,” White explained. 

The Committee Chophouse, a modern take on the steakhouses of old, also houses some lovely pieces. One of White’s own, and his personal favorite offering to the project, is ensconced within the eatery. “My work in the private dining room is called ‘Ganymede.’ It is the original carved woodcut, more unique than the limited-print edition I created which toured.” It is memorialized in print as part of the permanent collection at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas.

White encourages Omahans to experience the magic and the history for themselves and walk the public spaces of the building to soak in the local artwork. 

Visit watiewhite.com to see the artist’s work and thecottonwoodhotel.com to learn more about the hotel.

This article originally appeared in the June 2021 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  

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