Injury and illness fail to quash painter’s creativity

Janie Whited is an artist whose fantastical paintings are inspired by nature. Birds are her favorite subjects. She refuses to be defined by adversity, but Whited is also a brave survivor.

A resident of Artspace Everett Lofts in downtown Everett, the 58-year-old has struggled with the effects of a long-ago car accident and a more recent cancer battle. She lives with pain. Still, she creates.

Her work, which she describes as “drawing with paint,” is dominated by feathered creatures and brilliant blues that represent sea and sky — but not the sea and sky here. Whited, who spent 25 years in Florida, has yet to work much with gray and blue-gray paints that would match what is now outside her window.

This month, she is sharing her art in an exhibit at the Everett Public Library’s Bookend Coffee Co. An opening reception for her show, “Winged Vibration Dreamscapes,” will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. Saturday in the library’s coffee shop.

“It will be a nice party,” Whited said over coffee Tuesday in her Artspace home.

Ru Otto, Whited’s longtime partner, said there will be “treats and massages” at Saturday’s event, where a massage therapist is expected to be part of the evening. Otto, also a painter, shares her life and the Artspace apartment with Whited.

Their paintings cover the walls. The space is filled with frames and other tools of their trade. Whited also is a musician and a woodworker.

Both women have health challenges, but those don’t keep them from their work or their community. Artspace, part of the Hoyt Avenue building that houses the Schack Arts Center, is an affordable housing complex for artists and their families. “I love our little neighborhood,” Whited said.

In 1985, when she was 29 and living in Florida, Whited suffered a head injury in a car accident. Her lacerations healed, but a concussion led to seizures that continued for years. She already knew Otto, who took her in and cared for her during the worst of the seizures. “Ru saved my life several times,” Whited said.

Otto, who now uses a wheelchair, had polio at age 2, and was later stricken by post-polio syndrome. The women, who have been together since 1995, moved to Washington in 2004 to be near Otto’s family.

Two weeks after moving to the Northwest, Whited was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. They were living in the Olympia area then. Whited had surgery at the University of Washington Medical Center, and was treated for six weeks with chemotherapy and radiation.

Now cancer-free, she said her healing was helped along by her art and involvement in a Livestrong program for cancer survivors at the Everett YMCA. Paintings she calls “dreamscapes” are products of her healing process.

A tiny woman with a wiry build, she builds her own work tables and frames. Working with ink and acrylics, she is often awake past midnight drawing and painting.

Wherever she has lived, on a journey that began in tiny Elmo, Missouri, Whited has been captivated by the natural world. “Growing up in Elmo — population 200 — nature was my entertainment,” she said.

She studied at Northwest Missouri State University before moving to Denver, where her sisters lived. A chance to escape Colorado’s snow took her to Florida, where Whited found a thriving arts scene.

She settled in the Gainesville area in northcentral Florida, but also spent months aboard a sailboat in the Florida Keys. Most of her paintings are artistic interpretations of Florida water birds — petrels, pelicans, cormorants, herons and egrets.

In Florida, Whited made a living selling her paintings at arts and crafts shows. She had a job at a screen printing shop. She still has pangs of homesickness for tropical Florida. Injury and illness changed her life, but not her passions.

She was recently on the roof at Artspace when a flock of white birds flew over. She listened as the sounds of wings grew louder and louder, then faded into the distance.

“They gave me a message I was on the right path,” Whited said.

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460;

Art opening

An opening reception for “Winged Vibration Dreamscapes,” an exhibit by Everett artist Janie Whited, is scheduled for 6 to 8 p.m. Saturday at Bookend Coffee Co., 2702 Hoyt Ave. in the Everett Public Library.

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