Charleston has been home to a few important watercolorists, including Anna Heyward Taylor and Alice Ravenel Huger Smith, women of the “Charleston Renaissance.”
Watercolor painting began, arguably, in China, with calligraphy, perhaps 1,400 years before the birth of Christ. Calligraphy, which means “beautiful writing” in Greek, is making art with words and motion.
Often, water-based inks are used, along with a brush, to create sweeping, gestural expressions that include text (or letter characters) and implied emotion.
Eventually, calligraphy was used in a variety of ways and, embraced by other cultures, it spread across the globe. Words and images combined. Books were made. Illuminations accompanied lines of text. Color was added. Finally, artists created images that were independent of text. Usually, these were landscapes. Sometimes people were painted.
Like calligraphy, water-based painting of images also made its way across the globe.
Today, its practitioners produce vivid bodies of work, sometimes highly detailed, sometimes impressionistic. Famous watercolorists include William Blake, Winslow Homer, Paul Klee, John Singer Sargent, Andrew Wyeth and Charleston’s own Mary Whyte.
Today, Charleston’s leading watercolorist — indeed, one of America’s top contemporary watercolorists — is Mary Whyte.
Whyte is in China for two weeks, teaching and learning. She was one of 10 artists invited by the Chinese government to participate in the International Watercolor Forum Summit in the southern city of Nanning, near the Vietnam border.
She took with her several works to show and discuss, and she will produce two new works while there, she said in a telephone interview one day before departure.
Of the 10 artists, five are Chinese, three are American.
“The idea is to bring us into China and have an exchange of ideas,” she said. “We will all paint together, produce two more paintings while there and get them framed.” The artists also will deliver a 15-minute presentation. “It’s a big honor for me.”
Nanning is a city with a population similar to that of New York City, Whyte said. It’s in a particularly verdant part of China.
“I’ve seen pictures,” she said. “The landscape is absolutely magical. I hope to find local villagers willing to pose for me.”
Watercolor painting in China is part of a long tradition, she said. Chinese artists are trained to paint in a specific manner, with well-rehearsed brush strokes that can resemble those of calligraphy. Historically, they have produced compositions of a certain style and content, with an emphasis on line and motion.
“It’s just in recent decades that Chinese artists have been able to branch out and express their ideas,” Whyte said. “I think a lot of that has to do with the Internet.”
And now they are actively inviting cross-cultural interaction among watercolorists.
Angela Mack, director of the Gibbes Museum of Art and a staunch advocate of Mary Whyte, said the trip is designed to inspire its non-Chinese participants even as it exposes Chinese artists and art patrons to Western ideas.
“Frankly, I think it’s an amazing opportunity for her,” Mack said. “Hopefully she will not only introduce them to her incredible talent and style but come back from this with a real appreciation for the tenets of Asian art.”
The Chinese organizers of the summit are hoping the region will impress visiting artists, Mack added, “which is kind of interesting, because that’s exactly what we’re trying to do with our studio program.”
Furthermore, such a cross-cultural exchange will eventually benefit the Charleston community as Whyte exports an expanded perspective on art, Mack said.
The trip comes at an interesting moment for the city, she said. Charleston currently is hosting an important exhibition from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, “Photography and the American Civil War,” and it has enjoyed an exceptional degree of recognition lately. And now, Whyte’s been invited to China, one of a select group of artists.
“Maybe it’s because Charleston is becoming more known in the world,” Mack said. “These things that are happening are really putting us front and center in the cultural world.”
Whyte is not the first Charleston-area artist to visit the Far East.
Anna Heyward Taylor and Elizabeth O’Neill Verner also traveled to Asia (Japan), though they went on their own dime. So Whyte joins a local tradition.
She also spends time each summer in Italy, teaching a watercolor workshop in the Chianti region between Florence and Siena. That Italian sojourn also is a typical watercolorist’s experience.
Two paintings in two weeks. For Whyte, who creates highly detailed images, that will require determination.
“I’m going to have to drink a lot of tea,” she said.
The pictures will be part of a short group show at the Guangxi Museum in Nanning City.
Whyte’s work, a 20-piece retrospective, also is on display at the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio, through Nov. 24.
A show featuring 15 of her works is scheduled for Nov. 7-17 at the National Arts Club in New York City.
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