Faculty Spotlight

Professor of Communications Bob White Featured in Oral History Collection of Artists During COVID-19

Studio portrait of Professor Bob White, photograph by Jerry Russo.
Studio portrait of Professor Bob White, photograph by Jerry Russo.

“Teaching at Simmons is the greatest love of my life, and I have a lot of fun doing it.”

Of the 240 artists interviews that local photographer and filmmaker Jerry Russo conducted during the COVID-19 lockdown, he concedes that his exchange with Professor of Communications Bob White was “the most outrageous and wonderful” of them all.

“Professor Bob White is one of the most interesting characters you’ll run across and his COVID interview was not a disappointment,” adds Russo. Recorded on October 28, 2020, this Zoom conversation belongs to the “Jerry Russo Oral History Collection of Artists During COVID-19,” now archived at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

White and Russo became friends approximately 20 years ago, when they were involved in coursework at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. (Prior to the expansion of the Department of Art and Music at Simmons, White and his design students took courses at the MFA).

“During the nastiness of what we call ‘the pandemic,’ Jerry came up with the idea of making an oral video history by conversing electronically with artists from all over the world. He conducted 30-minute interviews with each of them. Then Jerry asked around to see if any libraries or museums would house the collection, and UMass Amherst gladly accepted his archive,” explains White.

Reflections of a Quarantined Artist

White, who is widely admired at Simmons for his theatrical style, faced unprecedented challenges when he had to transition from live to virtual teaching during the pandemic. “In the traditional classroom, faculty are responsible for taking intellectually dense ideas and concepts and presenting them in a pleasant and engaging way. And I try to do this with a dash of personality,” he says. “My particular pedagogical style is performative; I like to ‘show and tell,’ as we used to say in grade school. On Zoom, so much of this was lost.”

As White described in his interview with Russo, teaching virtually was not conducive to the dynamism and immediacy that White cultivates in the classroom. “I missed having an audience and witnessing their reactions in the moment,” he says. “It’s very important to the learning process. For example, in a live setting, I can read students’ body language if they are too shy to ask questions.”

As a filmmaker, White taps into memories for inspiration when making art. But the pandemic also challenged this method. White informed Russo that, due to a prolonged period of isolation, he noticed changes in how he made and accessed memories. “When one does not go out, socialize, and receive external stimuli, it is hard to create new memories, which is what happened to me. . . . However, in my isolation I did experience vivid rushes of old memories,” explains White.

A related problem that the pandemic posed for artists was physical confinement, which White described as “monastic,” in his interview with Russo. Residing alone in a small apartment, similar to a monk’s cell, reminded White of his college days at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA. At this institution, White received training from Jesuit priests. He also had the honor of serving as the altar boy for morning Mass. “And there I was in a very monastic school, interacting with Jesuits wearing long, black robes,” he recalls. “My exposure to the Jesuits ended up being a very grounding spiritual experience for me, and I have carried it with me for all my life.”

For White, who is of Irish Catholic ancestry, perhaps the saddest aspect of lockdown was that he could not worship at his beloved church, the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. “So that was something absent from my life during lockdown, but at the same time I had a cloistered experience in my own residence. . . . I do lean toward the mystic, so in a strange way COVID enriched the spiritual dimension of my solitude.”

Filmmaking as Therapy

For White, making films has a direct correlation with a harrowing childhood trauma. As a three-year-old child, he contracted polio. “I was taken away from my parents to be placed in isolation and I was anesthetized with ether.” Thankfully, White experienced just a temporary paralysis and did not require an iron lung. “I emerged with one weakened leg — but I can dance.”

While the “underbelly of trauma” remained deeply embedded in his sinews, White concedes that “movies and books were my escape.” When he first encountered the cinema at eight years old, he was captivated. “Back then my family lived on Pleasant Street [in South Weymouth, Massachusetts] and there was a movie theater nearby. Every Saturday and Sunday I went to a double feature. And during the week, my friends and I would reenact the movies that we saw. . . . Watching films on the big screen was like being transported to ancient Rome — it was another world. And it helped me heal,” he says.

White oscillated between film watching and filmmaking. “I made my first movie at age 9, and this was a sort of an escape mechanism for me. Many of my movies have monsters, perhaps this constitutes a therapeutic experience of vanquishing the monsters [of the past] and of reaching for the stars.”

Over the course of his career, White has made approximately 65 short films, ranging from five to 25 minutes in duration. He is adept at both computer animation and live-action films, and gravitates toward the genres of science fiction, horror, and fantasy.

“Lately the buzzword has been Artificial Intelligence,” says White. “I began tinkering with chatGPT. For instance, you can feed it some specific information and it will generate a fantastic image. It can also make movies, which as a filmmaker I find rather frightening.”

White has deliberately placed himself outside of the focus on computer-generated art by returning to hand-drawn animation during the pandemic. “I dug through my files and found an old drawing I had made — basically a line drawing of faces and shapes that is somewhat Dali-esque,” he says. This discovery prompted White to resuscitate hand-drawn animation, which he used in his Zoom teaching as well. “Because we were all confined to our homes, I embraced line drawing and taught my students some film and animation techniques that do not require very sophisticated technology.”

This handmade animation is the basis of a larger film project. “I have been able to test my works in-progress during the Boston Open Screen, held at the historic Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline. The new line drawing experiment has been especially well-received,” says White.

Communications: A Career of Convergence

Now in his 53rd year at Simmons, White is a living legend of sorts, and students often compare him to Professor Albus Dumbledore of the Harry Potter fantasy novel and film series. “By virtue of being a professor, I have a position, title, and status. These are gifts that were given to me, and they come with great responsibility. . . . Teaching at Simmons is the greatest love of my life, and I have a lot of fun doing it.”

White encourages Communications majors to be versatile. “If you are a writer, the Department of Communications will celebrate your writing, and if you are a visual or design person, we will encourage you in that area. . . . But also know that today all forms of mass communication are converging, so you have to have a foundation in everything — writing, video, sound, recording, and design. [These multimedia skill sets are covered in] a capstone course that I teach, “Media Convergence” (COMM-262).”

Above all, White encourages his students to “read, read, read. Study, embrace, and love your learning.” As he explains, screenwriters do not get hired because they took a particular class on the subject. “They get hired because they can speak to a specific historical moment and offer deep reflections surrounding it. If you can discuss literature, art, science, and history in ways that reveal your broad knowledge of human civilizations, then you may very well make a good movie someday.”

Publish Date


Kathryn Dickason