Mary Whyte

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.

The exhibition of 50 works depicted blue-collar workers in industries vanishing throughout the south, with the exhibition traveling to museums throughout the southern United States. Whyte’s works exhibiting internationally include the China and Foreign Countries International Watercolour Summit at the Nanning Art Gallery in Nanning, China, in which Mary was one of ten watercolor artists of the world invited, and The World Watermedia Exposition in Thailand.

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 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.

American Artist Mary Whyte Watercolor Painting
American Artist Mary Whyte Watercolor Painting

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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.