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Painting the Overlooked: Mary Whyte’s Working South BY KELLY COMPTON
ne standout to catch this season is Working South, an exhibition of watercolors by Mary Whyte (b. 1953) at South Carolina’s Greenville County Museum of Art (March 9-September 18). Encompassing 30 finished works and 20 studies, this intriguing project traces the artist’s odyssey interviewing, sketching, and photographing dozens of workers on the job in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. All of Whyte’s sitters work in industries that are vanishing, people being left behind by outsourcing and changes in technology, fash-
ion, and environmental quality. Among her subjects are a cotton picker, a builder of wooden boats, a tobacco farmer, a sponge diver, a shrimper, a shoeshine, a milliner, a ferryman, textile mill workers, and even the members of a Miami funeral band. Rather than named portraits, Whyte offers sensitive genre portrayals that somehow hover between specific and universal, documented and timeless. “Painting a senator may be SPINNER [TEXTILE MILL WORKER, GAFFNEY, SC] 2007, WATERCOLOR ON PAPER, 28 1/2 X 36 1/2 IN. GREENVILLE COUNTY MUSEUM OF ART
BEE KEEPER’S DAUGHTER [SIMPSONVILLE, SOUTH CAROLINA] 2008, WATERCOLOR ON PAPER, 29 X 22 IN. ERA JOINT VENTURE
South Carolina’s textile industry, specifically that of Annie Lindsay, who was working at the Springfield mill in Gaffney when she posed. Whyte proceeded to find sitters through suggestions from family members, friends, and people she met during her travels: “I had a pretty good idea of where I was going with my list, and what kind of person I would meet. I kept working my way south until I found what I was looking for, or until it found me. Any preconceptions I had would almost always prove to be wrong. I was continually astonished by the people I met, not only by their differences but by the things they had in common. There are hundreds of people I could have painted. Some of my choices were simply subjective. Most often, I looked for a profound quality, a humanness that is easily recognized and can translate into the simplest of paintings.” Alas, Whyte wasn’t always welcomed: “A few company executives bristled at my request to paint a ‘vanishing industry.’ I was shown the door more than once.” Upstate South Carolina informed her project yet again when Whyte decided to spend portions of two summers in a rented mill worker’s cottage — a studio retreat away from the summer bustle of coastal South Carolina, where she normally lives. During her months there, she worked more than 11 hours per day, breaking off only to share a farm-style lunch with her landlords’ family, who tended bees and grew vegetables. (One of their daughters, Jane Bechdolt, appears in the painting Bee Keeper’s Daughter.) A LIFE OBSERVING PEOPLE IN TRANSITION As much as she loves the American South, Whyte is not native to it: she grew up in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, near Cleveland. Even as a teenager, she was cognizant of time an honor and have interesting challenges,” she says, “but I would much rather paint the person who cleans the senator’s office. When a person works with little audience and few accolades, a truer portrait of character is revealed.” The stimulus for Whyte’s odyssey arose in 2005 in Greenville, in the Upstate region of South Carolina that was once America’s leading center of textile manufacturing. While she was developing a commissioned portrait of a prominent Greenville banker, Whyte mentioned the morning headline about the impending closure of a local textile mill. After expressing his sympathy for those affected, the banker added, “In ten years, all the textile mills might be gone.” Although it was not the first image made for her series, Spinner (see page 45) puts a face on what remains of TONGER [OYSTERMAN, APALACHICOLA, FLORIDA] 2009, WATERCOLOR ON PAPER, 27 X 40 1/2 IN. ERA JOINT VENTURE FINE ART CONNOISSEUR.COM
Copyright 2011 Fine Art Connoisseur. Used by Permission.
TRAP [CRABBER, PINPOINT, GEORGIA] 2008, WATERCOLOR ON PAPER, 21 3/4 X 29 1/8 IN. COLLECTION JOHN AND MARY LOU BARTER
COTTON MAN [BISHOPVILLE, SC] 2007, WATERCOLOR ON PAPER, 40 1/2 X 27 1/2 IN. GREENVILLE COUNTY MUSEUM OF ART
slipping away, so it’s somehow not surprising that she made forays to sketch the nearby Amish community, the fields of which were being bought up for suburban development. Whyte later graduated from the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, but after a bout with cancer, she moved with her husband (the artisanal framer and Charleston gallery owner Smith Coleman) to South Carolina’s Seabrook Island. There she became fascinated with the Gullah people, descendants of slaves who have retained their own language and traditions through the centuries. Their culture inspired her illustrated volume, Alfreda’s World (2003), which focuses on a Gullah church congregation. Although she enjoys painting plein air landscapes in oil, Whyte is better known nationally for radiant figurative watercolors, such as those in Working South. Her commitment to this difficult medium can be seen in two successful publications —Watercolor for the Serious Beginner (1995) and An Artist’s Way of Seeing (2005) — and also in the workshops she leads nationwide, including an annual session at the Greenville County Museum of Art. This institution owns several of Whyte’s watercolors, as well as fine examples by Andrew Wyeth, whose achievements in this medium Whyte has long admired. Fortunately, those unable to reach Greenville this year will have other opportunities to experience Working South. It moves on to the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta, Georgia (December 1, 2011 – March 11, 2012), and then to the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, the Telfair Museums in Savannah, and the Peninsula Fine Arts Center in Newport News, Virginia. The University of South Carolina Press has published the handsome catalogue that accompanies the exhibition, which contains a foreword by exhibition curator Martha Severens, as well as Whyte’s lively recollections about how specific pictures came to be made. n KELLY COMPTON is a contributing writer to Fine Art Connoisseur. Information: Greenville County Museum of Art, 420 College Street, Greenville, SC 29601, 864.271.7570, greenvillemuseum.org. Details are at workingsouth.com. Copyright 2011 Fine Art Connoisseur. Used by Permission.