When painter Rob White told us he was fighting mesothelioma as he climbed the steps of the New Suffolk Post Office a couple years ago, he shook all the bones in his big frame, raised his eyebrows a couple times and then shrugged his shoulders in feigned amusement and ducked in to get the mail.
Humor is a manner of dealing with mortality that I’ve seen just a few times in people who’ve received such horrible news from the doctor, but Rob had just about the most finely tuned, robust sense of humor you could find.
When we heard the news yesterday that Rob had just died, we really didn’t believe it. He’d been there, on the edge of our peripheral vision, soaking in all of the North Fork, since that day at the post office.
We’d wander into him on Front Street in Greenport, a camera in his hand, trying to blend into the street scene as he captured it for use in his paintings. We’d see him staring at the view along the streets in New Suffolk or on Love Lane, always looking and seeing and capturing snippets of visual imagery to take home to bend in the way that only Rob could.
We called him a few months back to try to commission a cartoon for a postcard. He was busy. He’d been very busy. He had his own work to do, and it seemed there was no space left for work that didn’t involve following his own vision through to the end.
We spent a long time on Rob’s website yesterday afternoon, zooming in on the detail of works like “Discing in Drought,” a tractor pulling a disc harrow through a haze of dust; “Country Road,” a hyperrealist close-up of a box turtle sitting on the double yellow line; a surreal depiction of the Old Town Arts & Crafts Guild in Cutchogue; of Wickham’s peach orchard and of sailors heading out to the Wednesday night race around Robins Island; a strip of six ROFL-worthy cartoons below his latest paintings.
Most people will remember Rob White as a cartoonist, but he was truly a great painter, and he seemed to know at the end where his efforts should lie.
“I’m a late bloomer. Late in life, I decided I would make a stand of it,” he told me when I visited him a couple years back to write a story about his decision to paint full-time. “I don’t care what happens, I have a good time doing it.”