Mary Whyte's Everyday People

A solo exhibition of twenty portrait paintings by Mary Whyte, on view at the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio, through November 24, 2013, speaks to Whyte’s ongoing preoccupation with subjects she calls “everyday people.” Her paintings feature hardworking, unglamorous figures whom she either knows or has sought out, wanting to document and pay tribute to their often-overlooked communities, and the sometimes menial jobs they hold. The paintings also suggest that the particular demands of watercolor, generally regarded as the most difficult painting medium but also often dismissed as a somehow less artistic one, appropriate for flowery still-lifes and summer landscapes but not for more serious genres, are an apt metaphor for the complicated lives of Whyte’s subjects.

Sister Heyward, 2001, Courtesy of Mary WhyteWhyte is perhaps best known for her depictions of the Gullah women of Johns Island, South Carolina, where she lives. The Gullah are descended from Africans sold into slavery in the southern United States. Today, most Gullah people live in South Carolina and Georgia, residing in tight-knit communities where they speak their own language, a creole dialect influenced by various African languages, and work to continue traditions in storytelling, cooking, craft-making and other disciplines that were handed down to them by their ancestors. Whyte has explained that she met some women from this community by accident, when she happened to wander into a church where they were sitting together; she became friends with that particular group of women, and has been painting them and others of their acquaintance since—for the past twenty years. The paintings are collected in Whyte’s 2012 book Down Bohicket Road. They feature the women at their daily activities, cooking, sweeping or sometimes just sitting for a moment at rest.

One work from this book, Sister Heyward (2001; watercolor on paper, 24 x 16 inches) shares recognizable characteristics with some of Whyte’s more recent paintings. An elderly woman stirs a steaming pot of food at a modest kitchen counter. She is turned to the right in profile, her downcast eyes focused entirely on the task at hand, her arms and head bathed in light from the window in front of her and framed by upward-rising wisps of white steam. The light and steam elevate the woman, whose straightforward expression and rather earthy figure are made ethereal-seeming by their presence. Just as interesting is the fact that they reveal a particularly difficult element of Whyte’s painting technique, the traditional practice of “painting” the color white by allowing the white paper underneath the paint to show through, in place of using actual white pigment. This can be complicated, because every color that touches on the white area of paper is of course applied with water; with each new layer of color in the paint making the layer below it more watery and soluble, there is always the danger that too much water or too much color can seep into the white area, spoiling its purity and potentially making the paper wrinkle or buckle as well. It therefore takes a great deal of control to create such a delicate effect as the one in this image. Whyte’s painstaking work draws attention to her elderly subject’s own concentrated movement as, pressing her lips together, she carefully dips her spoon or ladle into the bottom of the heavy-looking pot.

Beekeeper's DaughterBeekeeper’s Daughter (2008; watercolor on paper, 28 ¾ x 21 ¾ inches), currently at the Butler and before that part of Whyte’s traveling 2012 exhibition “Working South,” takes a similar approach to a solitary working figure, framing and elevating her with carefully controlled passages of paint that give slightly fuzzy edges to broad areas of white paper. A suited beekeeper, nearly shrouded in the netted headgear and voluminous clothing of her profession, frowns lightly in concentration as she operates her smoker on an apparently windy day, its cloud of smoke blowing back toward her and framing her head. Here, the woman’s white clothing makes her figure parallel to the tall stacks of white-painted wooden bee boxes that surround her in the wooded area where she stands; she is essentially at one with her work. Whyte has commented that the series of paintings that Beekeeper’s Daughter belongs to was specifically about seeking out and bringing to light the labors of industrial and blue-collar workers across the country. Here, along with her painting of Sister Heyward, Whyte communicates a sense of dignity that adheres not only to the women who are doing this work, but to the actions themselves, which, in these paintings, help create a richly textured and intimate world in which each small movement has meaning and value. The delicacy required by her medium only underlines the weight of such a project.