Designing Woman

When it comes to art, age means nothing. Just ask Mahaffey White.

Brandon Dill

In her comfortable old house, shaded by towering oaks and magnolias, Mahaffey White sits and reflects on a life well lived. On July 12th, in the parish hall of her church, St. John’s Episcopal, she celebrated her 100th birthday, surrounded by family, friends, and admirers. For decades they’ve seen her work evolve from dressmaking and drawings to jewelry and photographs, all creations of this tiny woman who since childhood has pursued her love of art.

Though not as well known as some other local artists, White’s work has been shown from Memphis to Delaware, Arkansas to New York. And though she’s not mastering any new medium right now, she still finds self-expression in abstract colored pen drawings, “starting with a squiggle and seeing how it turns out,” she says. “Art is still very important to me. I consider it essential to my life.”

“Art is still very important to me. I consider it essential to my life.”

Born Anna Maude Mahaffey in Corinth, Mississippi, White moved to Memphis with her family around 1913. When she was only 6 years old, she knew she wanted to be a dressmaker. “The first dress I made was for the starving Armenians. That was years before I knew who the Armenians were or why they were starving,” she says with a blue-eyed twinkle. “I was so small I had to stand up to work on that dress at my mother’s old treadle sewing machine.” 

While attending Lenox Elementary School — one of the few city schools that offered art classes — White was encouraged by her art teacher, Minnie Raines. “She welcomed me in her studio and I loved her.”

After high school, White spent a year at the Art Institute of Chicago. To be a dress designer, she knew she needed a good basic art course. But when the Depression struck, the 19-year-old returned to Memphis to help her family. “I worked at Lowenstein’s, in that wonderful white-glazed-tile building on Main at Monroe, selling Victrola records. Young people would go into little booths and listen to the popular songs, but they wouldn’t buy the records,” she smiles, “so my job was phased out.” Over the next few years she worked with her sister in a dental office — “a pleasant and interesting time in my life,” she recalls, “but I knew I wanted to design clothes, and I decided to do something about it.” 

She arrived in New York City on her 24th birthday in 1935 and found lodging at a club called the Evangeline, run by the Salvation Army. “It was a delightful, well-appointed place,” White recalls, “where women could live reasonably.” She worked when they needed her at Constable department store, and also took in sewing at the Evangeline. Then she got a break, landing a seasonal job at the Parisian atelier Henri Bendel’s, where she helped custom-make dresses in the studio. From there she went to the Butterick Company, where she developed the designer’s ideas: “We’d take the designer’s sketch, drape the model, make a rough pattern, draw the lines carefully, and make a whole muslin garment. That garment, along with the cardboard pattern, would then go down to the grading room.”

In 1937 she married Richard White, a Memphian also living in New York. By then she’d resigned from Butterick, and was working from their home creating “one-of-a-kind designs for individuals,” she says. “That was fun and I was achieving my dream — but it wasn’t very profitable.” When her first son was born (she’s the mother of two) and her husband was drafted, she gave up the business. But she became friends with a group of artists known as the Abingdon Square Painters, with whom she still exhibits her works.

For awhile, art got put on hold, as she and her husband moved back to Memphis in 1950. He became organist for St. John’s Episcopal Church, while his wife became active in civil rights, early childhood education, and co-founding The Committee for Better Schools. Then it dawned on White, “This is not who I am. I’m an artist,” and at age 52, she enrolled at what is now the Memphis College of Art. 

“I majored in Metal and made jewelry,” she says. “I set up a little studio at home and exhibited my work at the Memphis Brooks Museum.” She also had a kiln and made enamelware and ceramics, and her works have been displayed at various galleries.

Along the way she earned a master’s degree at then-Memphis State, and got a teaching job at Shelby State (now Southwest) Community College, where she and two other women started the art department. She taught jewelry-making, art composition, “whatever they wanted to learn,” she says. “I enjoyed that so much, that relationship with the students. It was truly a marvelous time.” 

White retired in 1981 as associate professor. “Then,” she laughs, “I went back as a freshman!” While taking photography classes, she developed an eye for “the painterly approach,” she says. “The subject didn’t matter so much as the composition, the shapes, the relationships of color, all the essentials of art.” 

Before her husband became ill they would travel, and in her home-studio hang framed scenes of Scotland, of New York’s Twin Towers taken from the Staten Island ferry, and of old buildings significant to her past, with family photos superimposed over them. “I never learned to work all the buttons,” she says of cameras. “What I loved was the darkroom, where I could distort or enhance or superimpose. That was the magic for me.”

Widowed for two years, she recalls with satisfaction a rich and happy life and 74 years of marriage. “My given name was Anna Maude,” she says. “but my husband didn’t like double names and said, ‘I’m going to call you Mahaffey.’ And that’s what I’ve gone by ever since. We had so much fun in New York, going to concerts and museums. We had an ideal marriage, from the moment we met until he was gone. Neither of us would have changed anything.”

Asked if she’d change anything about her professional life, White ponders, then says, “I’d be more organized, try to do it all a little better, pay more attention. I’ve never felt like any of it was quite finished; it’s a continuum. But I’ve done it all intensely.” 

Her longtime friend and colleague, Patti Lechman, sees White’s intensity as “a lifelong passion that she never gave up on. She’s kept a youthful enthusiasm about art and has such a young spirit. And while the last phase of life can be a time for reflection, Mahaffey still loves producing and exhibiting her work. That’s a gift — showing us that art has no age limits.”

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