Parlaying artistic passion into business success

Known for his bronze bowls, C.T. Whitehouse embarks on the next phase of his career from his new home in Port Washington
By 
KRISTYN HALBIG ZIEHM
Ozaukee Press staff

Sculpture artist C.T. Whitehouse, who recently moved to Port Washington with his wife, noted children’s author Barbara Joosse, has immersed himself in the art world through the years.

But his first priority in Port isn’t necessarily to start making the stunning bronze bowls and vessels he is known for.

It’s to get to know the city and its residents, he said Monday while relaxing in his South Wisconsin Street office.

“My intention is to get nested here in Port and to get to know the people of Port. Perhaps I can help develop a public art program here in Port Washington,” Whitehouse said.

“Barbara and I have decided this first year here is going to be a year of discovery for us.”

Whitehouse, who relaxed  surrounded by artwork with his dog Poppy at his side, said discovery has been a hallmark of his career. He’s been involved in virtually every aspect of art since he started his career.

He began has an art major at the University of Kentucky in the early 1970s, but found it really didn’t prepare him. But because he also enjoyed architecture and design, he transferred into the College of Home Economics as an interior design student — the first man to study there, he said.

He studied design further at Harrington College of Design in Chicago, then moved to Colorado, where he “had a ski bum life,” he said.

After a couple of years, Whitehouse said, he began working in commercial and residential design, ultimately designing the first art gallery in Vail.

The owner then offered him a job managing the gallery, and Whitehouse parlayed the experience into the next phase of his art career.

While managing a gallery in Beaver Creek, Colo., Whitehouse said he got his introduction to sculpture, joining forces with local artists to cast life-size pieces.

After a number of years, the partnership broke up and Whitehouse went to work with a sculptor.

“I wanted the hands-on experience so when I talked to people I knew what I was talking about,” Whitehouse said. “I had no intention of becoming a sculptor.”

He then took a job in Taos, N.M., running a gallery and immersing himself in art.

“I consider Taos second in importance in the art world in this country,” he said, noting many artists settled in the area. “I was living in the history of art with these people and learning so much.”

Eventually, he returned to the University of Kentucky to study art administration.

“It didn’t take long for me to understand why I left the program in the first place,” he said, laughing.

One day, he went to watch glass artist Steven Powell work. Seeing the unspoken communication and partnership among the workers in the studio was like watching a ballet, he said.

“I knew right then I needed to be on the creative side of things, not the bureaucratic side,” he said.

He returned to Taos, then took a job in a foundry in Joseph, Ore., where he began to cast his work.

His initial intention was to create an alternative to funeral urns, he said. He started by casting small bronze bowls, and they turned out to be a hit.

“I started out doing little bowls to see how thin I could cast,” Whitehouse said. “I practiced patinas with them. I learned what I could do.”

Bowls and vessels “are easy and simple. The bowl is such a universal and timeless form,” Whitehouse said. “The intent of my work was to let the nature of the bronze show itself.

“I just love bronze. I can do any patina with bronze.”

He first sold the pieces through galleries in Colorado, but was frustrated he didn’t get immediate feedback. Then he stopped at the Cherry Creek Festival in Denver.

“I had never considered peddling my stuff on the street,” Whitehouse said. But he saw that art could be sold at a reasonable price and began applying to set up booths at the best art festivals in the country.

The Lakefront Festival for the Arts in Milwaukee — the fourth or fifth show he appeared in — was where he met his wife.

“I just loved getting in the car and shotgunning across the country,” Whitehouse said.

After four or five years, he was traveling 63,000 miles annually and participating in 18 shows “from Seattle to Palm Beach and from Houston to Baltimore,” Whitehouse said.

At the end of his fourth or fifth season, as he relaxed in a nice hotel, Whitehouse said, he was struck by a thought.

“I thought I can do this for real,” he said.

Through the years, he noted, he did a lot of other jobs to make ends meet, including delivering telephone books.

But now, he realized, he could make a living as an artist.

“I wish I had gotten into the fine arts market about 15 years earlier,” he said, noting that when the economy crashed in 2008, “it was awful. We still haven’t recovered. Sales over the last 10 years are about a quarter of what they were.”  

He and his wife lived in Cedarburg for many years before moving to Port. Whitehouse is still looking for a studio to do his work, but now he’s got an office.

“I’ve never had an office before,” he said.

Whitehouse, a member of the National Sculptors Guild, said he’s not looking so much for a retail space as a presence in the community.

He’s still working in bronze and selling at four to six shows a year, and while he’s noted for his patinated bronzes, today he prefers a raw bronze look.

“I like the ancient, crusty look,” he said.

And he’s advocating for the arts, noting that teaching art is important.

“In growing up, we’re given tools for life,” he said, and art helps students develop creative thinking.

“It enables you to solve things that otherwise feel unsolvable,” Whitehouse said. “The sky isn’t always blue.”

He’s also set up a curriculum that he believes people considering a career in art need to consider — a curriculum filled with the things he didn’t learn in school.

“Being an artist, you need to be a bookkeeper. You need to know how to drive a truck, know to negotiate the cost of materials. You need to know how to present your work. Those are all things they don’t teach you,” he said.

And then there’s that idea of a public arts program that’s percolating in his mind. These types of programs not only serve as an inspiration to people, but draw jobs and tourists, Whitehouse said.

“Just imagine,” he said, “when art is scattered around the city, people will always see an artful sculpture when they look around.”

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