Loading...

Throughout her career, Mary Whyte has been a consummate storyteller, whether her subjects were the Amish in Ohio, Gullah community members near Charleston, or veterans from across the country. As she claims, she prefers to portray people who are “under the radar.” Although she has painted with oils, her real forte is watercolor, which requires, in her words, “patience, fortitude, and practice.”

Whyte was born in Bainbridge, Ohio, twenty-five miles east of Cleveland, and early on displayed a keen interest in art. However, opportunities for art instruction were somewhat limited. Once she enrolled at the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia for formal training, she encountered a general disdain for watercolor and representational art. The school was known for its progressive curriculum, which included the liberal arts, but Whyte elected to concentrate on art with courses in drawing, graphic design, sculpture, and painting. She spent her junior year in Rome where she painted mostly landscapes, graduating cum laude in 1976 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree as well as a teaching certificate that her father had insisted she acquire.

For the next fifteen years, Whyte remained in Pennsylvania, working at times as a graphic designer and portraitist. Attracted to a nearby Mennonite community, she recorded simple daily activities like hanging out the wash along with rural landscapes. In 1991, she moved to Seabrook Island—just south of Charleston, South Carolina—a move that would transform her life. In search of a model for a class she was teaching, she visited a senior center and met a group of older African American quiltmakers. These women warmly embraced her and agreed to let her paint them, a collaboration that ultimately resulted in a publication and traveling exhibition. Whyte’s sensitive depictions are enhanced by her facility with watercolors; broad strokes flow across compositions simulating smoke rising and wind blowing, while tighter brushwork meticulously details hair and skin tones.

Whyte went further afield—from Mississippi to Florida—to develop a second major project, Working South. The underlying theme for these large-scale watercolors was people in occupations that were on the verge of obsolescence, such as a shoe shiner, an elevator operator, several textile workers, and individuals employed in aspects of the fishing industry. A third figurative series, We the People: Portraits of Veterans in America, consists of likenesses of veterans from all fifty states. The featured sitters represent a true cross-section of the United States military and are an ethnically diverse group of men and women from many walks of life.

In addition to these significant endeavors, Whyte has undertaken numerous portrait commissions, written manuals on watercolor, produced a dozen children’s books, all while maintaining an active schedule of workshops around the country and in Italy.