I had the pleasure of meeting Mary Whyte at a party in Jackson Hole, Wyoming in August. The friend who introduced me to her said “Do you know who she is?” and embarrassed that maybe I should know her, I admitted, “Yes, but tell me more!” It seems, to my utter delight, that Mary Whyte is one of the preeminent watercolor portrait and figure painters internationally. The friend went on, in front of me and Mary, to tell me that Mary has written six books, is a highly sought after teacher, is eagerly sought by private collectors, and shows her works at prestigious museums and exhibitions. I immediately made an appointment with Mary to interview her the next day for primewomen.com as the slice of her story I heard that night made me want to hear more.
Mary Whyte grew up in Chagrin Falls, Ohio and always loved drawing. Her love escalated when she sold her first painting in 8th grade for $20. Her ballerina mother and businessman father encouraged her creativity but not necessarily her desire to go to art school. After his initial disapproval, he relented when he saw that she had enrolled in art school on her own and tried to rent an apartment near the school, both of which were in a very dangerous part of town. He said he would pay for art school if she would go to a school and live in a place safe. And she did – Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia where she was originally trained to paint in oils.
At the age of nineteen, she had her first exhibition. She later learned the art of watercolor on her own by studying masterworks in museums. She discovered that she loved painting people and loved painting in watercolor which she says is a special breed of art requiring surefooted drawing skills as well as being able to see the unique physical and emotional qualities of the person you are painting.
Mary was in her late 30s when, after a bout with breast cancer, she and her husband, Smith Coleman, moved to Johns Island off of Charleston, South Carolina. It was here that Mary discovered the 12-mile Bohicket Road which led to the small rural Hebron Church and the Hebron St. Francis Senior Center where Alfreda LaBoard and her devoted group of senior African American ladies gathered weekly to make quilts, study the Bible and socialize in the church. Mary befriended this group of Gullah women and they in turn, befriended her.
The Gullahs’ were a group of freed slaves who came from all parts of Africa and because their languages were so different, they created their own spoken language, Gullah. Mary began a series of detailed watercolor portraits of these women and their children as they lived their daily lives – Mariah, in her nineties, sitting in her chair quilting;
Georgeanna in her kitchen cooking and many of their children over the 20 years that Mary painted them.
Alfreda in her colorful hats and in the sweater she patched with fabric in the shapes of flowers.
These paintings were highly prized by collectors and were photographed and made into a book, Down Bohicket Road. The book includes stories of the women she painted along with photos of the paintings. The stories are priceless and the watercolors are vibrant and expressive. I bought the book on Amazon and have thoroughly enjoyed reading the stories and perusing the photos. Pat Conroy, the writer, said “The extraordinary work of Mary Whyte, who could easily be named the first visual poet laureate of South Carolina, is astonishing on the very face of it. She is painting a South Carolina I thought only a poet or novelist could create.”
Mary’s next long term project was painting people who worked in blue collar jobs – many of these in vanishing industries – an elevator operator, a crabber, a boat builder, an oyster shucker, a tobacco farmer.
Since she doesn’t allow anyone to see a piece in progress, this series of paintings entitled, Working South, were not exhibited until 2012, after 3 ½ years of working on these portraits. Working South includes fifty watercolor paintings, sketches and commentary which are documented in the book.
The first exhibit of these works took place in 2012 at the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston and it really launched her career. It was one of the best attended launches in the history of the Museum and included many of the people she painted plus many people from the community who don’t normally attend art exhibits. She gifted each subject with a print of his/her portrait and an invitation to the exhibit. She said that one of the men she painted said that this was the best thing that had ever happened to him in his life – that he always felt invisible with no attention ever paid to him. That is the power of Mary’s works – full of heart and sincerity.
Mary gifted me with her book Working South, again full of photos of her work with commentary. Because the book is so stunning, I am anxious to see some of the original paintings which are in the permanent collections of the Gibbes Museum and the Greenville County Museum of Art in South Carolina.
As you might imagine, Mary has received many accolades and in 2016 she was the recipient of the Portrait Society of America Gold Medal and the 2013 Elizabeth O’Neill Verner Award.
Mary is now working on a new project and, of course, it is secret until she finishes. She says she is planning an exhibit some time in the near future, and will let me know when and where. I will surely be there. Mary was a delightful, interesting, caring interviewee and held me in rapt attention throughout our conversation. I am thrilled to now know “who she is” and I am a big fan.
In An Artist’s Way of Seeing, Mary inspires her students with these words: “Whether we are artists or not, we all seek a life that is filled with “more” – more creative pauses, more colorful relationships, more meaning. Everyone wants the secret to success and happiness. In my classes, I show students that they have to identify what they are feeling in order to paint, that the quality of their production is not primarily about technique or copying. As artists, we paint from our hearts as well as our heads.”
Take a look online at images of Mary’s paintings and you will see the heart in her art.