She was in the 8th grade and sitting on her aunt's front porch in New Jersey. Using pen and ink, she began to draw a diner across the street. When little Mary was finished, her aunt was sure the owners would want to see it and might even want to buy it. As Mary stayed on the porch, the aunt marched across the street and soon returned with $20.
Mary Whyte had sold her first piece of art.
"I started selling my artwork in high school," Mary, now 64, recalls from her downtown studio. "It was better than babysitting."
Mary found Charleston during a family vacation in 1984. She immediately determined this was the place she wanted to call home.
"I can't imagine not living here, this is the best!"
Mary Whyte is a watercolor artist who paints common subjects in a captivating and uncommon manner.
Some of her models, a group of African-American women on Johns Island, have been on display in her paintings for 25 years.
"When I first started painting them, some of the older women were smoking pipes. Now, during one of our sessions, one of the ladies will stop to answer her cell phone."
While times have changed, Whyte's paintings are timeless. They also capture what Mary describes as life's little in-between moments. Sweeping the floor, stirring the pot on the stove or snapping beans ... those periods of time that keep us connected.
In addition to the Gullah ladies, Whyte's paintings have depicted firefighters, a policewoman and a tattoo artist.
Just two months ago, another artist asked Mary for some insight. You might say he invoked an executive privilege.
Hail to the chief
President George W. Bush started painting about five years ago. Many of his subjects are veterans. Mary sent her book of paintings to the Bush Presidential Library with a note tucked inside explaining how much she appreciated his willingness to take such a risk as a high profile figure.
Imagine her surprise to receive a handwritten message enclosed in a presidential gold-embossed sealed envelope. The note simply said, "Admire your paintings — watercolor toughest to do. Ever come to Dallas — let's talk paint."
Mary was ecstatic and called the assistant within 30 seconds. After being vetted and undergoing a security check, a date was set this past March.
"I didn't know what to wear."
She was told Bush would be in a suit, so she wore her best navy blue suit.
"He was so welcoming."
They sat down over a cup of coffee and talked about fundamentals and technique.
"It's quite a moment to have a president interested in what you do."
After about 45 minutes, an assistant magically appeared to bring the meeting to a close. Bush gave her his book and autographed it.
Two months later, Whyte is still flushed with excitement about that visit.
What's a good painting?
For Mary Whyte, a good painting is one that endures. In her mind, everything is worthy of painting, even a gray day.
In the fall, Whyte will return to China for a second time. Watercolor art is revered in Chinese culture and she is one of 10 artists invited, and the only woman.
Whyte continues to look for subjects no one else is likely to paint.
"I prefer subjects who live life under the radar."
Beyond those subjects already mentioned, there's the boxing trainer, the beekeeper, the crabber and the quilter.
No one is ever allowed to see the work in progress. Her brush strokes attempt to tell a story.
I must tell you, when looking at the painting of the woman stirring a pot on the stove, you can almost smell what's cooking.
We're glad you call Charleston home, Mary. An audience with a former commander-in-chief is quite impressive, but it's the way your brush connects us to the Lowcountry that makes us all all proud to call this home.