Portraits capture nobility of workers Gibbes exhibit featuring works by Mary Whyte focuses on blue-collar lifestyle

This portrait is part of the “Mary Whyte: Working South” exhibit opening Friday at the Gibbes Museum of Art.

For 31/2 years, watercolor artist Mary Whyte rode the byways of the South, venturing to each of its states in search of the human face of blue-collar life.

She met laborers and hatmakers, elevator operators and oystermen, shrimpers and ferrymen and funeral musicians. Each represented a surviving remnant of rural and industrial workforces in decline, victims of economic and environmental change, new technologies and the vagaries of fashion.

Whyte set out to tell the stories of these vital but too-often invisible people in portraits revealing their dignity and strength.

Collected in last year’s “Working South: Paintings and Sketches by Mary Whyte” (University of South Carolina Press), a finalist for the 2012 SIBA Book Award and ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year, 50 of these works have been assembled for the exhibition “Mary Whyte: Working South,” opening Friday at the Gibbes Museum of Art.

The show will be joined by a second exhibition opening concurrently, “Places for the Spirit: Traditional African-American Gardens of the South.”

“I was drawn to this subject because I think that it’s a story that needs to be told,” says Whyte. “These are people living out their lives under the radar. But I think we get a truer portrait of these characters when they go about their lives largely unseen, with few accolades.”

Whyte says she always has been fascinated by people who earn their living with their hands.

“I learned how passionate they are about their jobs. You’d meet someone who works in a textile mill and assume it was all drudgery, but I was surprised at how many people did take pride in their work. Many of them said they could not imagine doing anything else.”

Like the classic documentary photographs of Dorothea Lange, Whyte’s portraits have had a salutary effect in some cases, prompting one manager at a textile mill to re-evaluate her perception of her own employees.

“This woman told me these paintings made her realize she needed to treat her workers with much more dignity, something she felt she had overlooked.”

Whyte has added some studies and sketches to the mix, but the 50 watercolors produced from life, photos and memory are the soul of the show.

“I got the same two reactions from the people I met. ‘You want to paint ME?’ and ‘Wait till I fix my hair.’ Which was the last thing I wanted them to do, of course. I wanted to show just how hard they worked and how tired they were at the end of the day. I want to show the vulnerability of people, because that is one thing we all connect with, while also trying to be as truthful as I can be in what I am depicting. We may not recognize the person, but we do recognize the emotion.”

For Whyte, whose work will be on display in the Main Gallery, watercolor as a medium is a magical form: fast, fluid and transparent.

“All the qualities that people have.”

On view in the Rotunda Gallery, “Places for the Spirit” will feature the work of fine art photographer Vaughn Sills and her collection of photographs documenting African-American folk gardens and their creators.

“The pairing of these exhibitions underscores our mission to promote American art from a Southern perspective,” says Angela D. Mack, Gibbes’ executive director. “This is a splendid opportunity to discover the uniqueness of the South through the eyes of two stellar artists.”

In related programming, Sills, a professor of photography at Simmons College in Boston, will lead an exhibition tour at 2:30 p.m. May 25. Whyte will lead exhibition tours at 2:30 p.m. June 1 and 8. All events are free with museum admission.

Reach Bill Thompson at 937-5707.