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In the Studio: Mary Whyte

by Allison Malafronte

Mary Whyte in her Charleston, South Carolina studio  Photo credit: Jack Alterman

Now more than ever, a humanist spirit, sensitivity to social injustices, and a respectful honoring of fellow man and woman regardless of race, color, or creed are desperately needed in our country. The Charleston, South Carolina watercolorist Mary Whyte is someone who has been delivering on these principles through her paintings for more than four decades. Over the years, her diverse series of portraits of everyday people with fascinating stories—from her Gullah series of Gullah women of Johns Island, South Carolina to her Working South collection featuring blue-collar workers to her most recent series honoring fifty American veterans titled WE THE PEOPLE—have paid homage to the beauty, interest, and dignity of human beings from all walks and stages of life.  

Summer Solstice (from the Gullah series) watercolor on paper, 30 x 39 ¼ in., private collection

Although Whyte has received many honors and awards throughout her career—and her work has been exhibited in and collected by museums and private collectors worldwide—the recent 2019 CBS Sunday Morning special on her WE THE PEOPLE: Portraits of Veterans in America was a significant milestone for her. The segment explored the origins, motivation, and process behind the seven-year project and also highlighted several stories from the veterans chosen to participate. In this Q+A, Whyte took time out of her busy schedule to answer some questions for us as well, explaining her goals for the exhibition, her reaction to the overwhelmingly positive response it has received, and moments of personal meaning and challenge from the creation phase—as well as answering questions about her life and work as one of America’s most enduring and endearing realist artists. 

Sweet Margaret, watercolor on paper, 14 x 17 in., private collection AM: Where is your studio currently located, and how long have you been living/painting there? What made you choose to settle in that region of the country?

MW: For almost thirty years my studio was located on Seabrook Island, South Carolina, where I lived. However, a few years ago, I moved to Charleston. When I originally moved south from Philadelphia I had no idea how the change would affect the direction of my life and work. I began painting the Gullah people who lived nearby, and I also spent several years doing a series of Southern blue-collar workers. It was all an amazing journey of discovery.

AM: You have recently completed a seven-year project titled WE THE PEOPLE: Portraits of Veterans in America that has culminated in a major exhibition (first on view at The City Gallery in Charleston and opening at the National Veterans Memorial and Museum in Columbus on September 18, 2020). Where did the idea for this project originate and what were some of your goals that you hoped this collection of portraits would accomplish? 

MW: When the exhibition Working South was nearing the end of its five-museum tour, I began thinking about what my next series of paintings might be. I decided to do an all-encompassing portrait of America, with one painting from each of the fifty states. WE THE PEOPLE is not only a portrait of our veterans, who are indeed our truest Americans, but it is also a depiction of the diversity in our country today.

What I most wanted to accomplish in this exhibition was to give the public a new and different appreciation of our veterans and how much they sacrificed for the freedoms we enjoy today. WE THE PEOPLE is about the men and women who put their lives on the line to uphold our constitution and fundamental beliefs.

By a Thread (from the Working South series), watercolor on paper, 27 ¾ x 39 ¾ in., private collection

AM: Now that the paintings are done and you have been able to witness the reaction of both the public and the people you honored, what have been some of the unexpected results/reactions from this project that perhaps you didn’t anticipate?

MW: The public turnout in Charleston for the launch of the touring exhibition broke an attendance record. People came from all over the country. What touched me most were the veterans that came, especially the Vietnam vets. Their heartfelt reaction to being recognized in some of the paintings was surprising and moving.  On the whole, the response to the exhibition prompted me to start the Patriot Art Foundation, whose mission is to encourage, honor, and inspire veterans through art.

Bunker (from the WE THE PEOPLE: Portraits of Veterans in America series), watercolor on paper, 20 ¼ x 28 ¼ in.

AM: I’m sure each of the fifty paintings in this exhibition have special meaning for you and involved a unique story and journey, but is there one you can select and talk about that really moved you as an artist or challenged you in a way you haven’t been challenged before? 

MW: I knew that I had to include a homeless veteran in WE THE PEOPLE, and was able to find Dennis, who lives near Monterey, California. I had hired two other homeless veterans to guide me up into the woods where Dennis was living with his dog under a tarp, where I was able to get the photos and sketches I needed to do the painting. The resulting watercolor was Bunker, which addresses the challenges so many veterans face, including PTSD. The painting was one of the most challenging of the fifty, but it turned out to be the most meaningful, because of the friendship that resulted from it.

Flurries (from the WE THE PEOPLE: Portraits of Veterans in America series), watercolor on paper, 23 by 31 in. Navy veteran; rancher in New Mexico

AM: I love how you decided to depict these veterans who have fought for our country’s freedom in unconventional ways and you have chosen individuals who perhaps don’t fit the typical “veteran” stereotype. What were you hoping to communicate in the way you selected your subjects? What was the criteria for choosing who you would paint?

MW: I wanted to create a true portrait of America, which meant capturing a diversity of people. The men and women I painted were from all walks of life, all ages, all backgrounds, and had different ways of making a living. I wasn’t going for veterans who had earned medals or recognition. I wanted the ones who volunteered to serve their country, then quietly came home to their families and communities.  The only criteria that I had was that they had been honorably discharged and were willing to be a part of the project. 

Glory (from the WE THE PEOPLE: Portraits of Veterans in America series), watercolor on paper, 28 ½ x 20 in.  Air Force veteran; great-grandmother in Georgia

AM: In light of the current pandemic and the social-justice issues happening simultaneously, do you see this exhibition and its subjects taking on a new dimension in this context?

MW: The rising social issues that are in the national forefront today center around equality, freedom, and the sacred value of all people. These fundamental beliefs are the very foundation upon which our country was built, and the core message of WE THE PEOPLE.   

AM: This project is obviously not the first time you have used your artistic talents to honor individuals or groups of people. You have spent your career painting a variety of individuals who catch your attention and elicit your empathy, interest, or excitement in some way, either through commissioned portraiture or selecting your own subjects. What are some of the traits, characteristics, or circumstances of people that motivate/inspire you to paint them?

MW: Throughout my painting career I have encountered many people whose lives captured my attention. What interests me most are average, everyday people who live their lives under the radar. These are the untold stories, the real stories of what it means to be human.  

AM: You have won many awards and honors, not only for your watercolor portraits but also for your contributions as a teacher. How has teaching served you as a person and painter?

MW: Teaching is the surest ways to get better at one’s craft. Having to impart knowledge and skill requires succinctness, understanding, experience, and organization. Our biggest job as teachers is to inspire and instruct. It also involves encouragement.  

Front Entrance, watercolor on paper, 21 ½ x 17 in., available for purchase

AM: You have been a professional watercolorist and portraitist in the realist are world for several decades. From your vantage point, how has the trajectory of realism and how it is taught and received in the world changed from the time you were first learning to paint until now? 

MW: There are so many more opportunities now for artists to learn. When I was in art school in the early 1970s, there was almost no education available for any kind of classical training or realism. Now there are numerous ateliers across the country and world passing on the fundamentals of sound drawing and traditional painting skills. Realism has had a renaissance, thanks largely to its growing platform on social media.

AM: What is your “mission statement” related to why you paint and who you paint for? Has that remained relatively consistent throughout your life/career, or has it changed at different stages?

MW: Art that portrays the infallible nature of the human heart will endure.

Lovers (from the Working South series), watercolor on paper, 26 ½ x 27 1/8 in., private collection