Mary Whyte is a watercolourist whom I have long admired, ever since I saw her work at her husband's gallery, Coleman Fine Art, in Charleston, South Carolina. It was thus a treat to be able to see a large body of her work, Working South, currently on display at the Telfair Museums in Savannah, Georgia.
The exhibition apparently grew out of one of those lucky coincidences and flashes of inspiration: she was painting a portrait of a Greenville banker and they were commenting on the number of lay-offs announced in the local textile mills. A chance reply to her about the fact that in ten years, all the mills would be gone sparked the idea to record and paint people who were working in the large number of disappearing occupations; from crabbers and textile mill workers to loggers and small hog farmers. Mary Whyte set out to find and paint workers in these different worlds in the South. Three years of work produced the exhibition now at the Telfair.
There is a felicitous mixture of large finished watercolour paintings and the small studies and preparatory drawings on display. It is always good to see how careful preparations and study, learning about the people, the places, the look and feel of a subject, with accompanying journal notes, small drawings and paintings, help ensure a good result in the final work of art. It is a salient point we all ought to register as artists!
What is also fascinating and impressive about these watercolours is their combination of tight realism in faces, hands and arms for each portrait, and then the fluid, abstract use of watercolour's rich capacity to meld and swirl billows of colour in other parts of the painting. Underpinning all this skill is, in each case, a sense of dramatic, arresting composition, an arrangement of shapes that goes to the essence of the occupation or industry Whyte is depicting.
One of the most interesting of these paintings, for me, was this highly evocative depiction of elderly musicians marching to honour the dead in this Miami, FL, cemetery, a custom that is almost gone. Whtye's ability to go from tight, detailed realism to the most diaphanous of "mists" of colour, melding bodies and ground, with the mighty banyan tree as abstract counterpoint, was impressive.
Perhaps the most valuable remark - for fellow artists as well as for viewers - that Mary Whyte makes in the book accompanying the exhibition, Working South; Paintings and Sketches by Mary Whyte, is : "true art is not about copying. Every painting is an invention. Each painting we make is about our observation and the feeling about what we are seeing. Not one painting represented in this book is exactly what I saw, but each is exactly what I felt." (page 8)
This exhibition is well worth visiting - several times!