From foster care to fine art: Rockford teen channels chaotic youth into painting

Dysen White was raised in the foster care system while his mother battled an alcohol addiction.

His father, who was not in the picture during White’s childhood, died from a drug overdose in 2017.

Today, the artwork that’s a product of White’s formative years is showcased as “Odyssey: The Teen,” a 15-piece collection of acrylic paintings on display at J.R. Kortman Center for Design, 107 N. Main St., in downtown Rockford.

“I used to draw a lot when I was kid, and I thought of my own superhero and his name was Odyssey,” White said. “And I like used drawing as an escape when I was going through it, when I was getting abused at one of the houses. So, that’s why I call it ‘Odyssey: The Teen,’ because I’m a teenager now. Still to this day that character means a lot to me.”

The 19-year-old plans to graduate from the alternative high school at Roosevelt Community Education Center this year and enroll in Full Sail University in Florida to study animation. 

More:Kortman’s ‘Collection’ is five decades of Rockford’s art scene in a single book

White is inspired by his godmother, LuAnn Widergren, a former Rockford art teacher and accomplished painter, and fellow Haitian-American Jean-Michel Bawquiat, a prominent artist during the Neo-expressionism movement in the 1980s who died at the age of 27 from an overdose.

“I resonate a lot with him,” White said, noting that both spent a period of their lives being homeless and both paint with an Afrocentric theme.

White’s style creates paintings that are colorful and filled with energy. His favorite piece is a self-portrait that incorporates eight different shades of blue.

“All of these paintings are different emotions,” he said, “anger, sadness, happiness.”

Kyle Wolfe, a digital art instructor at Roosevelt, describes White as an expressive, self-taught artist.

“He doesn’t over think it,” Wolfe said. “He just produces and moves on to the next one.”

It was Wolfe who recommended White for a show at Kortman’s.

Co-owner Doc Slafkosky said the show came together through happenstance.

A show with another artist had fallen through and a spot opened up at the gallery for Rockford’s popular Fall ArtScene weekend.

Slafkosky said he knew White was the perfect choice.

“We thought, ‘Who can we get to fill in?'” he said. “When we saw Dysen’s work, we said, ‘Now this could be a really interesting show.'”

“Odyssey: The Teen” opened Oct. 6 and runs through Nov. 11.

Chris Green: 815-987-1241;; @chrisfgreen

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