Editor’s note: The following interview with Stephen Whiteside took place on Wednesday, May 22 prior to the season premiere of “She’s Gotta Have It” on May 24.
A McDowell native turned D.C. artist will have his work featured in Season 2 of Spike Lee’s “She’s Gotta Have It” on Netflix.
Stephen Whiteside, who goes by the artistic moniker “Estéban” for his work, will have at least three pieces featured in an episode of the Oscar winning filmmaker’s TV series, which premiered its latest season on May 24.
“I feel really honored, and I’ve always looked up to Spike Lee and I’ve always loved his work,” said Whiteside over the phone. “Just to be a part of something that his name is attached to it is like the best thing that’s ever happened to me. So I’m just really excited.”
A 2004 alumnus of McDowell High School, where he played basketball, soccer and ran track, the former West Marion resident attended Montreat College and graduated in 2008 with a bachelor’s degree in business management while continuing collegiate basketball. However, post-college life would later lead him to unexpected places.
“Once college was over with and there were no more sports, I was looking for the next thing to get into,” said Whiteside, who relocated to the nation’s capital in 2013. “After moving up here to D.C. and with all the free galleries I could go to and all the museums, I just kind of fell in love with art. I’ve always loved art, but I really fell deep in love with it after I moved.”
Since relocating, Whiteside has worked as a museum assistant in The Phillips Collection in Washington as well as a publishing assistant for independent political magazine The American Prospect.
“I get a lot of my ideas from the stuff that the writers here are writing about, cause I hear about the research their doing and what’s on their radar, so I get a lot of ideas just listening to the writers,” said Whiteside.
A reoccurring theme of the artist’s work – frequently a blend of collage topped with acrylic and/or spray paint – is acute examination of social and racial inequalities in the nation, ranging from police brutality and the vitriolic state of race relations in America to searing indictments of Congress and President Trump.
“I guess the main theme in all of my work is - whenever I don’t know what to paint next, I look around at news headlines and ask ‘Who is being oppressed?’ or ‘Who is the little guy getting picked on?’ wherever throughout the world,” said Whiteside, “and I usually base my pieces off of something that I see like that, just people that don’t really have a voice or oppressed people is where my work normally goes to.”
Such work, featured on Whiteside’s Facebook, Instagram and social media accounts (often under the Estéban signature), soon attracted the attention of director Spike Lee’s production team on “She’s Gotta Have It.”
The show, based on Lee’s 1986 film debut, focuses on the creative exploits and romantic entanglements of Brooklynite artist Nola Darling (played by DeWanda Wise) as she attempts to balance numerous open relationships and vie for sexual freedom and career opportunities amidst a gentrified city backdrop.
“About a year and a half ago,” Whiteside recalled, “someone contacted me on Instagram and said that they worked with Spike Lee, that they were his production director – just to set up the scenes and find artwork for the show – and for Season 2, they decided they were going to use emerging artists instead of established artists. He contacted me and asked if that would be something that I’d be interested in, showing my work on the show. I was extremely interested and really excited, but I kinda didn’t know if it was actually going to happen. It sounded too good to be true.”
Months passed, but no answers were given and the wait continued. Finally, Whiteside heard back.
“One day they [production director] called me and said, ‘Spike Lee really likes your work,’” said Whiteside. “He sent me a bunch of pictures of my work and asked if these pieces were available or not. I told him some of them had been sold but I could recreate them or try to track them down. So they gave me a couple months to do that. I would say around last summer, they asked me if they could rent some of the pieces and they rented, I think, about eight pieces.”
Although, at the time of the interview, Whiteside could not confirm the specifics of how or long or how prominent his pieces would be featured, he was nonetheless informed by Lee’s staff that the artwork would appear in episode three of the show’s second season in a fictional art gallery toured by protagonist Nola in select scenes.
“I got to see pictures of the outside of the gallery and they had my name (Estéban Whiteside) on it and a fake write-up,” said Whiteside, “but I don’t know if it’s going to be like a one second scene or a little bit more.”
One such image discussed at length, titled Laquan, is an autopsy report of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, who was killed in 2014 during an officer-involved shooting by convicted Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke.
“It was a piece after I saw the police video of Laquan [McDonald] getting shot in Chicago, and I think that piece means a lot to me, because people see headlines and they see stuff, but to actually see the video of, you know, a person getting shot 16 times in 20 seconds, that’s unarmed, it’s…I don’t know, it does something to me and motivates me to keep doing work like this,” said Whiteside, who obtained the autopsy online through the Cook County coroner’s office in Illinois. “I feel like if enough people see how bad the situation is in some areas, it might have more of an effect instead of ‘Oh yesterday, a cop killed another unarmed man.’ It sucks, but it doesn’t really hit you hard. The piece I really did is just an autopsy report that I got online from the county coroner’s office, and it just shows where the bullets came in, where it came out. It’s a very simple piece. But just to see that this guy was unarmed and a teenager and got shot 16 times in that short of time, I think it’s a really brutal piece that brings more light to the problem.”
Whiteside works and resides in Washington, D.C. with his wife, Gabrielle Tucci. They are expecting their first child in August.
“I no longer have a studio, it’s been turned into a nursery,” he remarked. “So I’m back to painting on the floor or painting outside and stuff, but it’s well worth it.”
Season 2 of Spike Lee’s “She’s Gotta Have It” is currently streaming on Netflix.