In early September, French Art Network, which operates two Carmel galleries, Galerie Rue Royale and Galerie Rue Toulouse, hosted a show for artist Todd White. The show drew fans from around the country and did almost $2 million in sales. A show last year in Carmel hit the $4 million mark.
Vice President of Operations Ryan Tramonte, who is based in New Orleans where there are two additional galleries, explains the excitement. “We carry an exclusive line of his pieces,” he says. “We are the premier original dealer in the country. We have the first right of refusal on all the originals in the United States.” Other gallery artists, he says, include French sensationalist Marc Clauzade, landscape and figurative painter Nicole Sebille and master painter Denis Lebecq.
White, whose earlier claim to fame was lead character designer for the popular cartoon “SpongeBob SquarePants,” is the only American represented by French Art Network. His intriguing, vivid depictions of men and women often in smoky, nightclub type settings, casting meaningful glances at each other, are mesmerizing.
“I really think people are able to identify with Todd’s creations and the characters within his creations,” Tramonte says. “I think they see themselves, they see their mother, they see their sister, they see their best friend, and that is the best way to get someone interested in something.”
White, a native Texan who is based in Los Angeles, manages his business, The Art of White, with his wife Megan, with whom he has two young children. He spends his days running his business and paints into the late evening. “I stay up pretty late,” White says. “Those are the creative hours when I’m not bothered.” Ideas come from real life, although White explains he uses elements of what he sees, instead of literal representations. “I find my inspiration in so many places,” he says. “Everywhere from movies, to music mostly, to going out at night, to my friends, magazines.”
His career path took him from huge success with “SpongeBob SquarePants” to turning full-time to his personal art. “I was the only designer for the first five years of ‘SpongeBob,'” he says. “I kind of knew I was done with animation, and that was such a perfect ending career job. Everyone on that show was so great, and Nickelodeon was such a great place to work, that I went out on such a high note…Toward the end of it, I would finish my work so early that I would sit and do my drawings for my paintings all afternoon, then I would paint all night.”
White’s confidence proved essential as he hit Los Angeles with a small inventory of art and barely enough money to purchase frames and art supplies.
“I decided to be more outgoing and started taking my paintings all around town,” he recalls. “I became this really great guerilla marketer. I would walk down Ventura Boulevard and see a trinkety, tschotskety store, but they would have this big blank wall right next to a huge window, and I would walk in, and I had such confidence in my work, I’d say, ‘I’ll give you $500 a month cash for that spot on the wall, but everything I put on it and sell, I get 100 percent of.’ And they thought I was insane. They thought the biggest sucker had just walked in.”
White would drive home, grab all the framed work that he had, then drive back and throw the work on the wall. Before he got home, he’d get a call that he had a buyer. “When I see windows of opportunity, I lunge through them,” he says.
White started hitting locations throughout L.A. A friend made an introduction and he sold paintings at Nic’s Martini Lounge in Beverly Hills. A licensing agent saw the pieces and launched White’s work into Z Gallerie and Bed Bath and Beyond. Next he held a sold-out show at Nickelodeon. It was all the confirmation he needed that he’d made the right choice. “I earned more in one night with my show than a month working there,” he says. White started entering as many art shows and street fairs as he could find. If his work wasn’t chosen for a show, he’d build an Aframe on the back of his truck and sell his paintings out of the truck while parked on the street in front of the show.
“I’d sell out of everything in four hours,” he says. “By the time the cops showed up and told me I couldn’t park there, I’d say, ‘okay, my bad, I’ll leave.'”
White recently launched the Todd White Project to help school children receive art supplies after discovering the huge need. “My mother teaches ar t in San Antonio, Texas, and I found out she only gets $600 for the entire year for ar t supplies for the kids,” he says. “I thought, ‘how crappy is that?’ The next kid who is coming up and is so great is going to be so uninspired.”
He plans on selling sketches, paintbrushes, shirts he painted, bar napkin sketches and other fan requests on his website to raise funds to purchase gift boxes of art supplies for schools across the country. MasterCard heard of his plans and is discussing creating a Todd White Project credit card where a percentage goes to the project. They are aiming to raise $100 million, a number that at first was unbelievable to White. “I realized that was such a league I wasn’t used to dealing with, I couldn’t comprehend it.”
The fact that MasterCard has such confidence goes a little way into explaining his appeal. Trying to explain the draw to White’s work is like trying to explain the difference between good art and bad art. One engages, one is lifeless. White’s work pulls people in. “His subject matter is dead on and true to life with what is going on in the dating world and the hipster scene,” Tramonte says. “He just nails today’s society right on the head. He’s probably the only artist I can think of that describes our society to the T.”
White says his biggest collector base is in New Orleans and Carmel, his biggest gallery is in the U.K., and he is about to open a gallery in Japan. “My fans are the greatest fans in art, period,” he insists. “No other artist has as great fans as I have.”