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Bringing the Frontier to Life

Maysville artist Steve White is more than just a history buff. When he’s not painting scenes featuring Native Americans and pioneers, he’s often walking around the northeastern Kentucky wilderness, getting in the mindset of the people who lived there centuries before.

“My paintings are kind of like history lessons,” says White. “But I go to great pains to make sure that those are right. I’m wanting to make sure that I’m portraying them the way they actually looked. There are enough lies out there without me contributing to more lies by not painting what’s accurate.”

White grew up in Maysville. After joining the Army and spending time stationed in Europe, he took art classes and developed his craft. The history of the Maysville region inspired his work. Pioneers and Native Americans came through the area, following the Ohio River and buffalo traces, or trails, that passed through.

“Trace is an old word, 18th century, early 19th century word, that settlers used when they were talking about a trail,” says Louis Browning, Trustee Emeritus of the Kentucky Gateway Museum. “Trace and trail were often used interchangeably. The buffalo used to come down out of Ohio and ford the river here at Maysville. [White] just absorbed this whole concept and knowledge of buffalo trace to the point where it became part of his psyche, I think.”

White’s process starts with the historical inspiration he gets from reading journals from the period. He then brings in live models and sets them up to create the scene he intends to paint. He sometimes has artists create authentic accessories, like a period-appropriate saddle or rifle, to incorporate into these scenes. He photographs the live reenactment but will often begin painting right after the photo shoot and does a lot of the initial sketches from memory.

White says a large commission piece will take him around two months to complete.

“I know when a painting is finished when I think I’m emotionally drained,” he says. “My mind says, well, you know you said everything that you could say. I think that once I get the emotion that I want the viewer to get, I think that it’s time to walk away from it. Once I sign my name to it, I’m finished. It’s like somebody else did it.”

White’s love of regional history goes beyond his art. He sometimes dresses in 18th century clothing and shoots an authentic flintlock firearm.

“I’ve got one foot in the 18th century and one foot in the 21st century,” says White. “A lot of my time when I’m not painting is I’m shooting and just getting out, hiking, thinking about new ideas. Sometimes I’ll walk over a creek or trail or something and think, well, you know, what historic figure actually did this at one time?”

This segment is part of Kentucky Life episode #2006, which originally aired on November 15, 2014. Click here to watch the full episode.