She started in secret. And it took seven years to finish.
Mary Whyte crisscrossed the United States in search of veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces. The artist had in mind something big.
“I will go to all 50 states, and I will paint a portrait of America,” she told herself.
Her previous big project was “Working South,” which took her to 10 Southern states over four years and resulted in a magnificent collection of large-scale watercolor portraits of people in threatened and disappearing blue-collar jobs: textile mill worker, tobacco farmer, sponge diver, elevator operator, shoeshine man, hat maker, shrimper, ferryman.
In documenting these people, Whyte, who is based in Charleston, tapped into a profound nostalgia, humanized underappreciated Americans of a certain era and, at the same time, alluded to the tectonic changes the country has experienced over the course of a generation.
Whyte’s style, a vivid combination of realism and expressionism, and her scale (these were large paintings) only served to heighten the dramatic and historic effects.
Now she has completed a project more ambitious still.
“We the People: Portraits of Veterans in America” is a multi-faceted effort with three main components:
- An exhibition, opening at the City Gallery at 5 p.m. Friday, Oct. 25 and running through Dec. 22
- A newly formed nonprofit, Patriot Art Foundation, which seeks to honor veterans, provide support as they return to civilian life and connect veterans to online art, history and healing resources
- And a book, “We the People,” published by the University of South Carolina Press
But that’s not all. The project has its collaborators. The Charleston Symphony Orchestra will feature Whyte’s new series during its Masterworks concerts Friday, Oct. 25, and Saturday, Oct. 26, at the Gaillard Center. The program features Respighi’s “Three Botticelli Pictures,” Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait,” and Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.” Images of Whyte’s paintings will be projected onto a screen above the orchestra throughout the performance.
The USS Yorktown will serve as the venue for a Patriot Art Foundation brunch. Several of Whyte’s veteran models will attend both the brunch and the Saturday concert.
The veterans who posed for portraits come from all walks of life, Whyte said. One is a nurse, another a taxi driver, another a coal miner, another a tattoo artist, another a construction worker, another a teacher, another a ferry captain, another a homeless man. The series portrays veterans of several conflicts who have reintegrated into civilian life, often successfully, sometimes with terrific struggle.
There are a total of 21.3 million veterans in the U.S., according to 2015 Census data. More than 33 percent of them served during the Vietnam War. Only 7.3 percent of all veterans are women. South Carolina is home to more than 390,000 veterans.
The project began with a list. Whyte jotted down a potential range of subjects: old, young, all racial and ethnic backgrounds, and people all along the socio-economic spectrum. She wanted to include an astronaut, so she went to NASA. She wanted to include a homeless person, so she searched for one in California. Whyte asked acquaintances for contacts, sometimes finding subjects through a friend of a friend.
Some ideas for portraits were predetermined; others came to her spontaneously while on location. One summer, she rented a cheap apartment in Woodbine, Iowa, a tiny town about 35 miles northeast of Omaha, Neb., and strategically located to give the artist access to a wide swath of the Midwest and West.
To make 50 large-scale portraits — to find, interview and photograph the subjects, to examine their surroundings, to make sketches, to pay them a little something, to flesh out each painting conceptually then create it — is no small matter.
“I knew this would be expensive,” Whyte said. “So, to get to a lot of these locations, I organized painting workshops.”
In Skagway, Alaska, for example, Whyte invited students to learn her watercolor ways, for which they paid a fee, then she dashed off after class to find the postmaster whom Whyte was set on painting.
Typically, she took a number of photographs of her subjects, often in settings she hoped to re-create in watercolor on paper. Back in the studio, sometimes her brushes brought well-formed ideas to life perfectly, sometimes the ideas needed work, or the brushes needed another chance.
“I did Dennis (the homeless man from California) over three times to get the feel I wanted,” she said.
'What she meant'
Rich Colonna, 58, is a Navy veteran and high school science teacher who lives near Philadelphia. He served almost 22 years, from 1986 to 2008, traveling the world and, for two years, commanding the USS Austin, an amphibious transport dock that carried Marines, helicopters, gear and more.
“I was in the (Persian) Gulf at the start of the Iraq War in 2003, quite an honor,” he said.
Colonna’s grandfather emigrated from Gaeta, Italy, in 1920 and eventually returned, though the family he helped produce remained in the U.S. When Colonna was stationed in Italy, he visited his cousins and other relatives there, he said.
About seven years ago, a school colleague working in the IT department approached Colonna with a proposal. “I have a friend working on a project and she’s looking for a veteran in Pennsylvania,” the colleague said. Soon, Whyte had reached out and made arrangements to meet Colonna.
“She comes up to the school, poses me like I’m modeling, gives me a check,” he recalled. “No one has ever paid money to look at me before!”
Earlier this year, Sharon Crawford, project manager and Whyte’s agent, emailed all the participating veterans to tell them about the exhibition opening and other events planned for October. Included in the email was a short video of Whyte discussing the project. Colonna caught a glimpse of his portrait.
“I stop it, and I’m in tears,” he said. “Oh my God, I can’t believe what she did.”
This summer, Whyte went to Colonna’s house to unveil the painting.
“That whole thing was another shock,” he said. “What an honor to be part of this project she’s doing to highlight veterans. A hundred and fifty years from now, people are going to see these and understand what she meant.”
Jodi Mosher, a 57-year-old Marine Patrol Officer these days, was on the dock in Stonington, Maine, signing apprentice papers for a lobsterman, when Whyte turned up in search of a veteran to paint. There were a few around town, including Mosher, who had served for 22 years with the U.S. Coast Guard. A small buzz rippled through town.
In the office a couple of hours later, Whyte approached Mosher. “Actually, I’d like to do this with you,” the artist said.
Mosher wasn't accustomed to being the center of attention; she was dedicated to serving others, often forgoing expressions of gratitude. Most people had taken her for granted, even when she saved lives, even when she was forced to cope with the trauma of arrests and accidents and injuries and deaths.
But all that was OK, for she loved her life on the water. She grew up that way in Ipswitch, Mass., and Kittery, Maine, learning to repair boats as a kid, learning to respect the Coast Guard, in whose auxiliary both her parents had served. During her high school years, she worked on lobster boats. At 18, she enlisted.
She was stationed for a period in the area of western Lake Superior and she covered all of the North Shore, including Michigan’s glacier-grooved Isle Royale National Park.
“I was getting paid to cruise around on boats, do search and rescue and law enforcement, arresting people,” she said. It was beautiful up there, but she did see her share of blood.
Later, she patrolled the busy mouth of Maine’s Kennebec River and its five little islands. She had more than 400 lobstermen to look after, and she enjoyed the quaint, old-fashioned atmosphere of the place.
In 1996, she was briefly a prison guard, and in September that year she was assigned a new position.
“It was tough being the only female in Marine Patrol for eight years,” she said. “You have to walk around with big shoulders. ... You have to have good character.”
After meeting Whyte, the two women went out on the boat so the artist could take photographs. Whyte took more pictures on terra firma. The big reveal came later.
“I was just speechless,” Mosher said. “All I could do was stand there, stare at it. I just choked up, I couldn’t speak, tears flowing. I’m choking them back now. ... Somebody out there was watching my life and said, ‘You know, this is for you.’ Honestly, I needed a shoehorn to get my head through the door.”
Tommy McQueeney, chairman of the National Medal of Honor Heritage Foundation, the nonprofit behind the center now under development and slated to open in Mount Pleasant in 2023, has been providing support to the “We the People” project, joining Whyte on unveiling trips, interviewing veterans and encouraging his colleagues on the foundation board to find a way to house the entire 50-painting series at the future center.
“I don’t know what’s going to go into (the center), but if you asked me today, that’s my preference. I’d do back flips,” McQueeney said. “It just fits so well with what we’re doing. This could be an incredible benefit to the museum and to this area.”
Whyte said she wants to find the series a home, and the Medal of Honor Heritage Center would be the perfect place.
“The ultimate goal is to keep all the paintings together on permanent exhibition,” she said. “I just want a place where veterans can come in and look and say, ‘I mattered.’ ... I want the public to connect with them. They may be done with the military, but they are in our society, among us.”