Editor’s note: Famed watercolorist and Johns Island resident Mary Whyte recently returned from a trip to China. The Post and Courier asked her to write about the experience.
BY MARY WHYTE
Special to The Post and Courier
It’s a long way from Charleston to China. It is almost as far away as I imagined it to be when I was a child, the day my brother and I dug a hole in the backyard.
“If you dig deep enough, you’ll end up in China,” my father said peering down at us, as my brother and I heaved Ohio clay over our shoulders. I pressed my spaghetti arms harder against the shovel, hauling it upward. With every arc of our shovels, wayward clods of dirt cascaded down on our heads. I kept at it, flinging more showers of dirt, imagining at any moment I would see the head of a yellow-skinned man popping up out of the earth to greet me.
In China, I am called Molly Way. At first, I politely tried to correct the mispronunciation, but was more politely corrected back again. Ah, right. This is their country. I am not Mary Whyte, I’m Molly Way, the only woman watercolor artist in the group, the one who stands a full head above everyone on the elevator, the one who wears the frayed, floppy hat and wields chopsticks as delicately as a missile hitting a log pile.
There were 10 of us in this invited group of artists from around the world. Four of the artists were from China, but others came from Australia, Italy and Singapore. Three of us were from the United States. Each of us arrived at the airport carrying eight finished watercolors rolled inside tubes, ready to be framed for the exhibition at the museum in Nanning.
For the next week we traveled by bus to small rural villages with names like Xin Ping or Da Xu, setting up our easels along narrow dirt streets, and beneath stone archways that were centuries old. Paper lanterns bobbed like strings of floating pumpkins over our heads, swaying to the sounds of a grunting hog from behind a heavy door.
Nearby, women crouched in stream troughs, their knotted fingers wringing the necks of clothes, while men perched on stools smaller than shoe boxes, pensively smoking cigarettes with their eyes closed.
A few days later, we painted along the Li River, a silvery band of water that winds between the mountains like a sleeping dragon’s tail. As we worked, fishermen skimmed silently by on narrow bamboo rafts, their spindly reflections curdling with the shape of the watery sky.
Wherever we painted we attracted an audience. Dozens of Chinese art students carrying sketchbooks and cameras trailed us like spaniels everywhere, anticipating where we would set up our easels, then crowding in to observe.
Many of the students had come hundreds of miles by train with their teachers just for the privilege of watching us, leaning in so close at times I could barely move my elbows outward. They breathed when I breathed, brought their heads up to look at the vista when I did, held their breath when I paused with the brush mid-air. When I made an especially long, curving brush stroke, they let out a collective sigh.
Each day at dusk we returned to our bus, loading our easels and painting gear below, then climbing aboard for the ride into the city for dinner. The meals were always abundant, varied and often unnameable. Platters and bowls of steaming mysteries containing pork, fish, chicken, rice, or vegetables were brought out one after another, then placed on a rotating lazy Susan in the center of the table. Sometimes we had whole chickens that had been hacked into one-inch sections, bones and all, their heads and startled eyes preserved.
Frothy green soup broths with large mushrooms cut as thin as leaves were served with pink shrimp wrapped in translucent rice sheaths or beautiful fingerlings of savory pumpkin. More platters were jostled in, teetering on the rims of lower plates, with even more offerings of powdery fish heads, deep purple potatoes, yellow chicken feet, steaming seaweed and miniscule fish that resembled delicate, golden threads.
I discovered that Chinese beer is a light, relatively harmless brew, but the rice-based alcohol is liquid fire. Both are served in small glasses, which are refilled after every proclamation of “Gambei.” In China it is customary to stand and raise high one’s drink with each “bottoms up,” and to consume the glass’ contents at one go. And, if you and everyone at your table have been offered a toast from visitors from another table, you must reciprocate the honor by going to their table and offering similar hearty wishes.
This well-wishing to the host and guests can continue throughout the evening expanding to include other tables, becoming a rather bibulous style of trick-or-treating, with everyone traipsing back and forth exclaiming “Gambei!” I have since come to believe that this custom may be the real secret to the slender Asian physique, since most of mealtime is spent hiking.
If the language barrier between the artists was ever a limitation, it was conquered with beer and singing. During meals the Chinese artists at one table would augment the conversations with lively bursts of patriotic songs from the Cultural Revolution. Then the English-speaking artists at another table would respond with wobbly, off-key renditions of tunes from American musicals. The lobbing of songs back and forth always ended with a group chorus of “Volare” or “Happy Birthday,” which may well be the two happiest songs on the planet. If President Obama ever needs to make friends in any part of the world, all he has to do is sing “Happy Birthday.”
The main purpose of our visit to China concluded at the end of the week with the exhibition and forum at the museum in Nanning. The event began with ceremonial speeches by local dignitaries, with the artists standing in a row behind them. One by one we were introduced, stepping forward. Four teenage girls in creaseless uniforms shot an explosion of confetti into the air, which floated down on our heads like colored snow. With this official commencement of the event, attendees and students crowded into the exhibition hall to see the paintings and to meet us.
“Molly Way, Molly Way.” In the exhibition hall my adopted name came in twos or threes as young people passed their cell phones to each other, then leapt beside me, grinning at the camera with their thumbs up. The other nine artists were equally engaged as we posed for countless photographs or signed our autographs to scraps of paper, envelopes, backpacks and T-shirts. One breathless girl handed me her blue suede handbag, which I signed with my black pen, adding the swirling outlines of a small daisy. She let out a tight squeak and danced off toward her boyfriend, waving the bag over her head.
As artists we had been brought together from around the world to exhibit our work, but more importantly, we were there to discuss the different cultural and aesthetic aspects of watercolor. After the exhibition opening, we were ushered into a large meeting room and seated in wide leather chairs, with the attendees fanning out in a circle around us. An overflow of young people stood in the doorway and hall listening to the commentaries.
The students were thoughtful and serious, asking questions through translators about our working methods and what we observed to be the main differences between Eastern and Western style watercolor. What kind of brushes do we use? Was China what we had imagined? During our visit what did we like painting the best?
My favorite painting I did that week in China was the one I never finished. It was the watercolor I started on a narrow village street, next to dimly lit shops with merchants selling dried, salted fish and colorful woven scarves. My easel was set up off to the side in a doorway so that villagers pulling heavy carts might get through the alley.
I didn’t see him at first. His grey jacket and loose pants were nearly the color of the worn paving stones where he had laid out his black-and-white ink paintings for sale. He was bent over his paper wares, contemplating, slowly picking up a sketch and studying it, then laying it down again in a different place. His noble head was the color of a polished chestnut, orbited by delicate wisps of white hair. In the corner behind him a chicken tentatively pecked at one of his pictures.
I had our translator ask the old man if I could pay him to pose for me. The man responded with a slow, measured nod. Then lighting a cigarette, he repositioned his small stool, and sat down to face me. I scrambled to adjust my easel and palette, then raised my brush to let my model know I was ready to begin. He gazed directly at me with his back straight, holding the cigarette between the tips of his ridged fingernails.
Occasionally, he brought the cigarette to his mouth, letting out a long, unhurried exhale of smoke that curled upward like an emperor’s sash. I painted quickly, continually dipping my brush into the browns and yellows made from the pigments of earth, dirt and clay. The peat-color hues deepened, becoming stronger, merging together in joy and memory from the rich, damp soil of a long-ago summer day.
A faint look of knowing crossed my model’s lips. I straightened, feeling a small jolt of electricity go up my spine. Perceiving the shift, the man lifted his chin ever so slightly. I stopped painting, then lowered the brush to my side and smiled. Here before me was my gatekeeper to China, the porter to this mystical place I had imagined more than 50 years ago. His eyes crinkled into two crescent moons of welcome.
As it turned out, I never finished the painting of my model that day. Halfway through the sitting, the elderly man grew tired and, without warning, slowly got up and walked off. A few minutes later he returned to give me a black-and-white ink painting he had done of the mountains that showed a tiny bent figure on a raft moving out of the picture. It is a self-portrait of my gatekeeper that now hangs in my studio. I just had to dig a little deeper to find him half a world away.