“We the People” – An Art Exhibition Honoring Veterans
Mary Whyte is an art teacher, writer and American watercolor artist who has received international recognition for her watercolor paintings of contemporary realism and portraiture. In 2016, she was awarded the Portrait Society of America’s Gold Medal. Other notable recipients include Andrew Wyeth and Jamie Wyeth and Nelson Shanks.
This past month, her latest exhibition, WE THE PEOPLE: Portraits of Veterans in America opened at The City Gallery in Charleston, South Carolina. In 2010, Mary began her journey across America, designed to paint fifty large scale watercolor portraits of American veterans. To accomplish this, she traveled to 50 states and funded her own trip. She was also recently featured on “CBS Sunday Morning.”
I had the pleasure of chatting with her about her recent exhibition, details about the creative process, as well as the personal impact her art has had on her.
Good Afternoon, Mary! Tell me a little bit about this show.
Well, I’ve always painted people, since I was a young child. The exhibition that was just before this one was called “Working South.” I spent several years traveling the South painting blue-collar workers in vanishing industries. After that, I wanted to know what my next act would be.
What compelled you to do this show?
I asked myself, ‘What if I do something on a national level?’ What if I could paint a portrait of America as it is today; not as we wish it would be, but as it truly is? I thought, ‘How could I pick one person from each state?’ That’s where I came up with my idea that (I was finding) true Americans (which) are anyone who is willing to lay down their life for their country.
What about this project resonated this deeply with you?
I represent the 99% of Americans who are not veterans (and I wanted to show the country who they were).
You must have been beyond-compelled to put your own time, energy and resources into this project.
I felt compelled to paint the people and places of our times; to do something big and meaningful in that way. The project itself took me seven years to do the paintings. I did it in secret – using my own resources. While I was doing that, I was sending work to the gallery, teaching classes and still keeping (my current life).
How did you find the subjects/people?
I started by making a list of the kinds of people I wanted to include – all ages, all backgrounds, all different kinds of people. Everything from an astronaut to a homeless guy…a taxi driver, a coal miner, teacher, nurse, tattoo artist, food truck operator, lobsterman.
(I asked myself) ‘Where am I going to find my coal miner? That would be West Virginia. Taxi driver? NY.’ I made a map of the United States. When I visited that state, I colored it in yellow; when I finished the painting, I colored it over in red.
It was harder than I thought. They are 1% of the population. Once I decided on a coal miner, I called dozens of coal mining companies. To find a police officer, I called police stations. I called taxi companies, small-town mayors or Chambers of Commerce…
Do you liken yourself to being a storyteller and/or an artist with a mission?
I was recently in one of the states, in a rural area. There was a group of farmers seated in a booth at the small diner. Finally, one turns around to me and says, “Are you the storyteller that we hear is in town?” I said, ‘Yes, sir, that would be me.’
I guess I really am a storyteller. That’s what we do as artists – tell stories about the world as we see it.
Did the project change the way you see the world?
It gave me a great appreciation for the sacrifices the veterans have made for us. There are a lot of places in the world where I could not have done this (work) – being a woman, traveling by myself, painting what I see ….all for the hope of creating a better life.
What has been the response?
[At the recent gallery opening] people just kept coming in and coming in….one woman was in a wheelchair a 98-year-old veteran – she, her daughter, and granddaughter all made a special trip to come to this.
And the response from veterans?
Many of them have thanked me for this. You never know how something like this will pan out for the future. This has snowballed in ways I could not have imagined.
Tell me about the process for each painting.
MW: Some of the paintings I had to do over several times….The bulk of my time was spent getting to each veteran, doing the thumbnail sketches, (and figuring out) how to interpret this into a painting. Most of the paintings took two weeks to do…some a matter of a couple days.
Did you get to know each of your subjects?
Some of them I was only with briefly – long enough to hear their story. Some have moved or passed away.….Several I never saw after that, but there are several which, I’m proud to say, have become very good friends of mine.
What do you hope this show will convey to the viewing public?
I’m hoping the public will see these average everyday images of people and realize that these veterans are still here and serving among us. That other veterans will see themselves in these stories/paintings and say, “I matter, too.”
Did uncovering their stories help them heal or uncover their own truths?
Many family members said, ‘You can’t imagine what this has done for my mother, father, brother.” It made them feel like they have a great purpose in life…including a homeless man.
Is this more about celebrating Vets or in creating and/or finding community?
This project and in past projects that I’ve done, I really had no idea how it was going to end up or the kind of impact it would have. I just felt compelled to do it.
I thought several times along the way, ‘I don’t know if I have the resources or the time to do this.’ But, there was a small voice which kept saying, ‘just keep going. You may not know why this is important now, but just keep going.’
Where do you expect this show to travel to?
It will travel for the next three to four years – Ohio, NY, Washington, Alabama – we’re talking with several other museums that are interested in taking it.
The ultimate goal is to keep these paintings together and on view permanently to the American people. There’s some talk that might happen in South Carolina.
How has this project changed you?
It showed me that one person can do something to make a difference and that I could do that.
As I said, you have conveyed much intent and passion.
I’ve always felt compelled to do something meaningful with my work. I didn’t just want to decorate walls; I wanted it to have an impact and (have my work be) meaningful and be an inspiration to others. I wanted to inspire Vets (by saying) that their contribution matters to the rest of us…and that it may inspire others to step up and honor others in this country.
Did anything else come from this project?
Yes, I started a foundation – the Patriot Art Foundation. One of the offshoots was to realize how important art is for healing, in general; something that could serve the veterans.
We’re partnering with the Citadel as a way to give veterans a means of expression, self-discovery, and healing through true art. We raised money to bring the subjects to Charleston to the opening.
It was the most amazing weekend. Watching the reaction of the community to them (too). It was so wonderful for these veterans – it confirmed that we can do something for our veterans through art…..
What’s your next project?
I have a couple of ideas in my head. I’ll let you know when I do.