Mary Whyte is an American watercolor artist receiving international recognition for her watercolor paintings of contemporary realism and portraiture. In 2016 the Portrait Society of America chose Mary Whyte as the recipient of the Society’s Gold Medal. The Gold Medal is the highest honor awarded by the Portrait Society with past recipients including iconic artists such as Andrew Wyeth, Jamie Wyeth, and Nelson Shanks.
Whyte has been awarded the South Carolina Arts Commission’s prestigious Elizabeth O’Neill Verner Award, the highest honor for an artist given by the state of South Carolina. Mary Whyte presents her watercolor paintings in museum exhibitions throughout the United States and internationally. In the United States, the groundbreaking exhibition Working South was featured on CBS Sunday Morning.
Mary teaches watercolor classes around the world and is the author of five nonfiction books published about her life, work, and artist instruction. A biography written about Mary titled, More Than A Likeness, The Enduring Art of Mary Whyte, written by art curator and historian, Martha R. Severens, has also been celebrated in museum exhibitions.
Mary Whyte Biography
Mary Whyte was born in Cleveland in 1953. She studied at the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia and later married and settled nearby, operating a gallery with her husband, Smith Coleman. In 1991, as she recovered from surgery and a yearlong regimen of chemotherapy, Whyte moved to the Lowcountry in search of a deeper meaning for life. She found it at the Hebron Zion St. Francis Senior Center on Johns Island, SC, where she discovered the women she portrays in Alfreda’s World.
These women, most descendants of slaves, gather at the Center each Wednesday for prayer, song, cornbread, and fellowship. They also make quilts, a longstanding tradition brought from Africa, which they sell to raise money for the church. Erected from timbers washed up after a shipwreck, the building dates to the years following the Civil War. Johns Island, like many other sea islands, preserves traces of the Gullah culture that are still evident in the group’s language, music, cuisine, dress, basketry, and quilt making.
Initially, Whyte was a passive observer: she had discovered the women while searching for people who would model for her paintings, and some of them were shy about allowing her to paint them. Now, however, Whyte has become a participant-threading needles, serving coffee, and sharing in their joys and sorrows. She has witnessed the passing of some: Mariah, Emily, Elizabeth, and Myrtle, among others.
Whyte has succeeded in preserving their likenesses and their communal activities for posterity in her paintings. Reflecting upon these works, Whyte commented: “A person never decides to become an artist. Rather, at some point, one discovers that he or she was already an artist all along. It is in the same manner that artists never choose their subject matter. Instead, our paintings find us.”
Whyte works in watercolor, a medium intimately associated with Charleston, SC, and with other realist figurative artists known for their portrayals of African-Americans. She has been compared with such Southern watercolorists as Alice Ravenel Huger Smith, Hubert Shuptrine, Henry Casselli and Stephen Scott Young. In her most recent paintings, Whyte explores the expressive potential of rich darks and the ephemeral nature of steam. Her combination of tightly controlled brushstrokes and loose, broad washes, coupled with contrasts of light and dark, produce an intensity not usually associated with watercolor. Whyte and her watercolors have recently received national recognition in a series of articles in Watercolor, American Artist, and The Artist‘s Magazine.
Alfreda’s World heralds the artist’s accomplishments at mid-career and consists of twenty watercolors. Following the run in Greenville, the exhibition will travel to the Hickory Museum of Art in Hickory, NC, where it will be seen from Oct. 3, 2003, through Jan. 4, 2004.
An accompanying full-color publication provides a first-person narrative detailing Whyte’s interactions with the Johns Island quilting group. In understated paragraphs, Whyte tells how she first met the women and how she gradually gained their confidence. Her prose poetically conjures the places and people, while her paintings colorfully portray them.
Whyte sees one of the goals of her work as documentary. “Like so many remote cultures, this sea island is being paved over by the influences of mainstream America, and I feel a sense of urgency to capture this before it’s gone. It’s why I paint the Gullah residents here, as I once did the Amish in the Ohio countryside. I am grateful to be a link that might allow these images to endure.”
One of the more amusing episodes recounted in the book tells how Alfreda taught the tall, thin artist how to make sweet potato pie. Dutifully writing down the ingredients, Whyte was baffled by measurements given as “scoops” or “dashes,” but was even more perplexed about the length of time she should cook the pie. Alfreda had a simple and direct answer: “I guess thirty-five to forty minutes. Long enough to fold and tote laundry.”
Alfreda’s pragmatism is demonstrated by the painting The Hugo Sweater, which is featured on the cover of Alfreda’s World. In her narrative, Whyte describes how the 1989 hurricane devastated areas of Johns Island, leaving many homes flooded and roofless. The church received boxes of clothing from well-meaning people far from Charleston. One contained brand new sweaters that had been slashed with holes, evidently so they could not be sold. Undeterred, Alfreda sewed on brightly colored flower patches, thus creating a one-of-a-kind sweater that was uniquely hers.
Whyte is a popular teacher, offering workshops in a variety of venues that draw aspiring artists from as far away as Colorado and Arizona. In addition, she has a devoted coterie of collectors in locales from California to Florida. Many own second homes near Charleston and have purchased more than one painting from Whyte. She is represented in Charleston by Coleman Fine Art, where her husband Smith Coleman crafts custom frames for his wife’s paintings.
The gallery recently located to the corner of Church and Tradd streets in downtown Charleston, SC – once the home and studio of Elizabeth O’Neill Verner. Whyte succeeds in keeping alive Verner’s tradition of rendering older African-American women at work; just as Verner depicted flower vendors in her numerous pastels, so, too, Whyte portrays – and befriends – members of the Johns Island quilting group. Significantly, Whyte elects to portray her sitters in their worlds, rarely bringing them back to her studio. She is also conscientious about compensating her models, and pays them an hourly wage.
In conjunction with the exhibition, Whyte will conduct a gallery talk and book-signing on Sunday, July 13 at the Greenville County Museum of Art. She has also written the popular instructional book, Watercolor for the Serious Beginner, published by Watson-Guptill, which is now in its fifth printing.
Mary Whyte Painting Journey
Mary Whyte is a teacher and author whose figurative watercolor paintings have earned international recognition.
A resident of Johns Island, South Carolina, Whyte garners much of her inspiration from the Gullah descendants of
coastal Carolina slaves who number among her most prominent subjects. In 2003, Whyte’s paintings of her Gullah
friends culminated in a museum exhibition and book called Alfreda’s World.
In 2011, Whyte’s ground breaking exhibition Working South opened with fifty works at the Greenville County
Museum of Art in South Carolina. Four additional museums signed on to exhibit the large-scale, sensitively rendered
watercolors depicting blue-collar workers in industries vanishing throughout the south. Whyte’s unrivaled mastery of
the watercolor medium, along with this exhibition, was featured on CBS Sunday Morning. Her book, Working South,
references each painting and sketch with background stories of the Southern people and places beautifully portrayed
within the exhibition.
Down Bohicket Road, released November 2012, is her comprehensive book of paintings completed over a twenty-year
period on Johns Island. It is a rich, visual tribute to friendship that crosses cultural and racial borders and reaches
straight to the heart.
Whyte was one of ten watercolor artists in the world invited to the China and Foreign Countries International
Watercolour Summit at the Nanning Art Gallery in Nanning China, October 2013. Simultaneously, The Butler Institute
of American Art showcased twenty of Whyte’s major works in a solo exhibition named after her recently released
biography titled, More Than A Likeness, The Enduring Art of Mary Whyte, written by Martha R. Severens and
published by University of South Carolina Press.
November 2013 Whyte was featured in a solo exhibition at the National Arts Club in New York City. This exhibition
was extended due to the overwhelming positive public response. Other exhibitions have included The World
Watermedia Exposition in Thailand, 2014.
Whyte is the author of Painting Portraits and Figures in Watercolor, Watercolor for the Serious Beginner, and An
Artist’s Way of Seeing. She continues to teach watercolor nationwide and in Europe.
She was awarded the Portrait Society of America’s Gold Medal in April of 2016.
Mary Whyte Story and Quotes
She was in the 8th grade and sitting on her aunt’s front porch in New Jersey. Using pen and ink, she began to draw a diner across the street. When little Mary was finished, her aunt was sure the owners would want to see it and might even want to buy it. As Mary stayed on the porch, the aunt marched across the street and soon returned with $20.
Mary Whyte had sold her first piece of art.
“I started selling my artwork in high school,” Mary, now 64, recalls from her downtown studio. “It was better than babysitting.”
Mary found Charleston during a family vacation in 1984. She immediately determined this was the place she wanted to call home.
“I can’t imagine not living here, this is the best!”
Mary Whyte is a watercolor artist who paints common subjects in a captivating and uncommon manner.
Some of her models, a group of African-American women on Johns Island, have been on display in her paintings for 25 years.
“When I first started painting them, some of the older women were smoking pipes. Now, during one of our sessions, one of the ladies will stop to answer her cell phone.”
While times have changed, Whyte’s paintings are timeless. They also capture what Mary describes as life’s little in-between moments. Sweeping the floor, stirring the pot on the stove or snapping beans … those periods of time that keep us connected.
In addition to the Gullah ladies, Whyte’s paintings have depicted firefighters, a policewoman and a tattoo artist.
Just two months ago, another artist asked Mary for some insight. You might say he invoked an executive privilege.
Hail to the chief President George W. Bush started painting about five years ago. Many of his subjects are veterans. Mary sent her book of paintings to the Bush Presidential Library with a note tucked inside explaining how much she appreciated his willingness to take such a risk as a high profile figure.
Imagine her surprise to receive a handwritten message enclosed in a presidential gold-embossed sealed envelope. The note simply said, “Admire your paintings — watercolor toughest to do. Ever come to Dallas — let’s talk paint.”
Mary was ecstatic and called the assistant within 30 seconds. After being vetted and undergoing a security check, a date was set this past March.
“I didn’t know what to wear.”
She was told Bush would be in a suit, so she wore her best navy blue suit.
“He was so welcoming.”
They sat down over a cup of coffee and talked about fundamentals and technique.
“It’s quite a moment to have a president interested in what you do.”
After about 45 minutes, an assistant magically appeared to bring the meeting to a close. Bush gave her his book and autographed it.
Two months later, Whyte is still flushed with excitement about that visit.
What’s a good painting?
For Mary Whyte, a good painting is one that endures. In her mind, everything is worthy of painting, even a gray day.
In the fall, Whyte will return to China for a second time. Watercolor art is revered in Chinese culture and she is one of 10 artists invited, and the only woman.
Whyte continues to look for subjects no one else is likely to paint.
“I prefer subjects who live life under the radar.”
Beyond those subjects already mentioned, there’s the boxing trainer, the beekeeper, the crabber and the quilter.
No one is ever allowed to see the work in progress. Her brush strokes attempt to tell a story.
I must tell you, when looking at the painting of the woman stirring a pot on the stove, you can almost smell what’s cooking.
We’re glad you call Charleston home, Mary. An audience with a former commander-in-chief is quite impressive, but it’s the way your brush connects us to the Lowcountry that makes us all all proud to call this home.
Elizabeth Goodwill, education director of Art Center Sarasota, recently announced that renowned watercolor portrait artist, author, and educator Mary Whyte will discuss her life’s work and her artistic journey, Sunday, February 17, 1-3 p.m., at Art Center Sarasota. This event will include a Q&A session and book sale and signing. Tickets are $30 for members; $35 for non-members. Wine and light bites will be served. For more information about this event, visit www.artsarasota.org/whyte. Whyte is also leading a three-day watercolor workshop, February 18-20, which has been sold out.
“We’re honored that Mary agreed to come to our area to share her wisdom, talent and stories,” says Goodwill. “This is a very rare opportunity for area artists and anyone interested in the artistic process.”
Whyte has received international recognition for her portraiture of people who are often unheralded. A resident of Johns Island, South Carolina, Whyte garners much of her inspiration from the Gullah descendants of coastal Carolina slaves who number among her most prominent subjects. In 2003, Whyte’s paintings of her Gullah friends culminated in a museum exhibition and book, Alfreda’s World. In 2011, Whyte’s groundbreaking exhibition, “Working South,” opened with 50 works at the Greenville County Museum of Art in South Carolina.
Four additional museums signed on to exhibit the large-scale, sensitively rendered watercolors depicting blue-collar workers in industries vanishing throughout the south. Whyte’s unrivaled mastery of the watercolor medium, along with this exhibition, was featured on CBS Sunday Morning. In 2016, she received the Gold Medal from The Portrait Society of America-the organization’s highest honor.
Whyte’s books include Down Bohicket Road, featuring her watercolors depicting a group of Gullah women of Johns Island, South Carolina; Working South, which captures the essence of vanishing blue-collar professions from across 10 states in the American south; and Painting Portraits and Figures In Watercolor, a guide for beginning and intermediate watercolorists.
Watercolor artist Mary Whyte is a teacher and author whose figurative paintings have earned national recognition. A resident of Johns Island, South Carolina, Whyte garners much of her inspiration from the Gullah descendents of coastal Carolina slaves who number among her most prominent subjects.
Her portraits are included in numerous corporate, private, and university collections, as well as in the permanent collections of South Carolina’s Greenville County Museum of Art and the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston. Her paintings have been featured in International Artist, Artist, American Artist, Watercolor, and American Art Collector, L’Art de Aquarelle, and numerous other publications. Whyte is the author of Down Bohicket Road, Working South, Painting Portraits & Figures in Watercolor, Alfreda’s World, as well as An Artist’s Way of Seeing and Watercolor for the Serious Beginner.