From wooden maps and layered collages to colorful paintings and black-and-white photographs, lifelong New Bedford resident Zachary White finds inspiration in the city around him. For White, art serves as both a means of self-expression and a vessel for bridging the past and present.
Now the executive director of Gallery X, White attended UMass Dartmouth, where he majored in photography and minored in printmaking before returning for a post baccalaureate certificate in printmaking.
Gallery X, located at 169 William St. in an old church, has been around since 1990 and functions as a nonprofit, contemporary and collaborative space for local artists across a variety of artforms. The gallery hosts a number of visual art shows each year, in addition to musical performances, comedy specials, and theater productions, and private events such as weddings and birthday parties.
From high school and college art students to professional artists, the gallery prides itself in welcoming creators of all walks of life and providing a space to share work in such a communal environment. White himself first got involved with the gallery as an art student at UMass Dartmouth when his program held a show in the old church. He eventually became a member and simply never left.
In addition to his presence at Gallery X, White also works in the archives at Spinner Publications, where he has held a job since college and draws artistic inspiration from old photographs of the city. More recently, he began his own business in the cemetery maintenance industry. Now, White splits his time between Gallery X, Spinner, and cleaning gravestones by commission in the local area.
In an interview with The New Bedford Light, White discussed his art, Gallery X’s mission and innovations, and the importance of community.
New Bedford Light: Your work deals with place. As a New Bedford native, what does the city mean to you?
Zachary White: When I applied to colleges, I realized I really wanted to just go to UMass Dartmouth. I wasn’t really interested in moving away and going to a big city. I’ve always lived here. I’ve always been familiar with the space. It’s where I’ve always been. For my work, I’ve gotten inspiration here. Even if I ever run out of it, there’s always more to look at.
NBL: How did you incorporate New Bedford into your senior thesis?
ZW: In college, I started working at Spinner Publications, which is a local nonprofit publisher and photo archive. I worked with all these old photos. I ended up doing a project on the urban renewal that happened in the 1960s into the early ’70s where they tore down a lot of the city. There was a lot of redevelopment going on. My project used these old photos. I went back to those areas now and did a before/after, then/now type of thing.
For instance, Route 18 used to be much higher. There was a gradual slope to it. Now because of the highway, they leveled it all. But there were these roads that when you look at them and find old maps to figure out where you’d be, you can’t even picture it in your head. … I started doing maps to try to get people to know where they were in these photos. Then I started trying to figure out ways of making prints or paintings that were based on mapping but not necessarily maps.
I was doing a lot of collaging and things, a lot of layering. I then took old city maps and Google Maps and redrew the map of New Bedford. The city map was old and didn’t have all the streets, and Google Maps might have things that aren’t really streets and such. I redrew it all and had this cut on a five foot block that was then printed.
NBL: Can you tell me more about your work at Gallery X?
ZW: I started in January 2020 as the director. We got one-and-a-half shows in before the pandemic. The gallery needed some modernizing in different aspects, and then the pandemic hit, making the focus on more of what we needed to do and almost, in a way, starting over. I’ve tried to rebuild our outreach. It was about us reintroducing ourselves to get things going back again with different events and people using the space. That’s been my focus, along with restoring the building.
In the 2022 fiscal year, we got approved for a Community Preservation Act grant, which allowed us to have the entire building painted and have repairs done. In the years we’ve been here, it was a lot of volunteer effort with us doing maintenance ourselves.
Now we’ve been successful with grant writing and getting funds to do some more work on the outside. One of the storefront grants we’ve gotten is for fixing up the doors and the foundation. We’re actually focusing this year on the stained glass windows, which we got another CPA grant to do. … It’s about preserving the building. It’s making it more welcoming. It’s giving it a fresher look. Once things like that get out of the way, we’re able to handle all of the inside stuff ourselves.
NBL: Having stained glass windows in an art gallery is pretty amazing.
ZW: Gallery X moved into the building in 1996 and built walls over the interior of 6 of the large stained glass windows to allow for more wall space. This past January we removed those small panels so the top portions could be seen again. After the stained glass windows along the front of the building are restored, which is currently happening window by window, we want to figure a way to uncover the entirety of the windows by having a modular wall or shutter-like system so the walls can still all be used for exhibitions but then open up the windows for full viewing on special occasions.
When we did a UMass show in May, I was a little nervous that people might say that they were going to get a glare on one of the pieces, but they came in and said this was the greatest thing ever. We don’t get glares, but we get this cool light, especially early in the morning or later in the evening. It just gives the gallery a nicer, warmer feel.
NBL: What kinds of artists do you typically get at the gallery?
ZW: We don’t charge admission to come in, and we just charge a small fee when artists want to show their work, like by the piece, around $15. … If somebody can’t afford something, we’re not going to not show their work. Especially with the pandemic, there were a lot of people picking up a hobby with painting. Then you have people for whom this might be the first time in our gallery, never mind showing their own work. Right next door, there could be somebody who has made their living as an artist to some extent. You get this nice cross play.
NBL: What role would you say Gallery X plays in the New Bedford community?
ZW: It’s an art gallery, and we also have performances. In many ways, it’s also a community center of sorts. This year we’re having 18-20 shows. Some shows are solo shows but most are open to everyone. We either give an idea or theme, or sometimes it’s just anything as long as the work is under a given size.
For a lot of people, Gallery X was the first place they showed, or maybe the first place they sold a piece. … Maybe they graduated or moved out of the area and life got in the way, but then they come back eventually. There’s people like me who started showing work here as a student and eventually joined as a member. If it wasn’t for the gallery and the show I did for school, I wouldn’t have gone out of my way [to keep showing my art]. I wouldn’t have probably been ambitious enough to seek out more opportunities. But this was here and it was easy and it felt comfortable.
We have people who not only want to show their work, but they want to be a part of the Gallery X community and the New Bedford art scene. With the pandemic, we started a separate Facebook group for just showing your art, so a lot of people knew each other through that. Back in person, we saw how many people got to know each other through their work and through social media. It creates this real sense of what we can be and what we are for people.
It’s also a space people rent out, either for organizations to do a public event or performance or for individuals having events like weddings. It’s one of those places where people come in for one thing — either they come in for the art show, or they come in for a performance or seminar type thing — and then they realize that anything, even the opposite, is possible here.
NBL: What does art mean to you?
ZW: When I was at school, it gave me a mindset of “if I wasn’t in school, I wouldn’t be doing art because I wouldn’t be expecting anything to come of it.” Even if having that photography degree or the printmaking certificate didn’t get me the jobs I have here and at Spinner, they at least keep me involved with art.
As an artist, you’re kind of on your own, but when you’re around other people, even in the print studio and nobody’s talking to each other because everyone’s working on their own project, you’re around other people while they’re making things. It still builds up your motivation, and you can keep going with your art.
When you start something, even just for the hell of it and you don’t know where it’s going, then you have something that you feel the need to. I often don’t know what that end will be. But it keeps me going. Then either something goes well or it doesn’t go well and I’m like, “OK, I’m going to do it differently.” I can keep going and when stuff does come out good — whether it’s good and that was what you wanted it to be or whether it was something that happened that wasn’t what you expected but you really liked it — it’s the act of making something that keeps me interested. Whether it’s something I show or something that’s good, at least I’m making something.
NBL: Could you tell me more about your artistic process?
A lot of my work got to be collages. I was doing screen printing, but it wasn’t always a big screen but sometimes small pieces of paper. So that you’re not inking the table, you throw down all the scraps, and then the scraps ended up getting printed multiple times and they were just things I was going to throw away. Then they became projects where I collaged them. The piece I was originally making is still half-finished in a drawer somewhere, but the stuff that was supposed to be the throwaways then became the piece.
If I plan like what I’m gonna do for a specific collage, then it feels too forced, almost like trying too hard. I have canvases but I usually don’t paint on them because it always feels like I paint on this canvas, it’s a finished thing. … Instead, I use this roll of ram board, a thin cardboard/paperboard used for floor protection during construction, and I do these paintings on that. I feel more free because it’s just a big roll of this stuff. If a painting doesn’t doesn’t go well, it doesn’t matter as much.
NBL: You recently started your own business, right?
ZW: My dad has worked at a local monument dealer/creator for his whole career, 45 years. My mother actually worked there too, and it’s how my parents met. I’ve grown up in cemeteries my whole life. … One year, one of the workers got deployed to Afghanistan, and there was some extra work to do cleaning stones in the cemetery. My dad took me on the weekends. I started off in high school, and then that kept growing and growing. At this point, I’ve probably washed 1,500 grave stones.
My business is called Next Generation Cemetery Maintenance. … I have the equipment. I’ve been doing this informally for 16 years, but New Bedford Creative had a grant program for startup businesses, so I applied for that, and they helped me get set up. [The company] officially started in December, but the first actual jobs done as the new company were this past spring.
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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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