Do Something Meaningful: WE THE PEOPLE
Since she was a child, Mary Whyte knew that one way or another, she would be an artist. She trained in oil painting at the Tyler School of Art and worked with the medium for years. However, her true passion was always watercolor. Considered a “lesser” medium, watercolor was not taught in her art school. Instead, Ms. Whyte studied great artists and experimented with watercolors on her own until she cracked the code.
Ms. Whyte’s latest project, WE THE PEOPLE: Portraits of Veterans in America, explores what it means to be an American through a series of watercolor portraits. After seven years and visits to all fifty states, Ms. Whyte discovered that one of the things that makes someone the most American is his or her decision to fight for America: to lay down his or her life for the rest of us.
The project expanded and grew in ways that Ms. Whyte could never have imagined. We were incredibly fortunate to sit down with Ms. Whyte to learn about her collection, WE THE PEOPLE, and how it has changed her life.
In two of her exhibitions, Working South and WE THE PEOPLE, Ms. Whyte has explored American culture. Of her work, Ms. Whyte said, “My goal is to paint the people and places of our times. I want to paint America not as we wish it would be, not to romanticize it, but to paint it as it truly is right now.”
Through WE THE PEOPLE, Ms. Whyte sought to create a portrait of America, but what makes a person the most American? The answer quickly became clear to her; the most American among us are our veterans.
Before setting out to find her subjects, Ms. Whyte told us that she visited veterans in a homeless shelter in Charleston to ask for feedback about her idea. The veterans were excited about her project, but they had one request for her: that she capture them from the top down.
From the most prestigious to the most destitute and everyone in between, Ms. Whyte wanted to honor their request to portray the full range of veterans, not just one stereotype. Almost entirely in secret, Ms. Whyte then set out to find her veterans from one coast to the other.
Showcasing Her Subjects
From a dairy farmer to a tattoo artist, a science teacher to a truck driver, an astronaut to a homeless man, Ms. Whyte connected with veterans from every walk of life. She looked for the everyday man or woman who went to serve quietly before coming home and folding back into his or her community.
Even though people who visit the exhibition aren’t likely to recognize anyone in her paintings, Ms. Whyte wants visitors to say, “I know what that feels like. I recognize that emotion.” As the exhibit travels to museums across the country, Ms. Whyte wants to be sure that veterans can see themselves somewhere in her paintings. She wants to show them that they matter.
Ms. Whyte painted people of all ages, from a teen to a 95-year-old. She found servicemen and women from all five branches of the military. Her subjects are as diverse as America itself, but she did discover one common thread. In each person she met, Ms. Whyte was struck by what she described as, “the overriding sense of honor that they all have. Even after they’ve left the military, they still have that sense of honor.”
Our veterans honor America by hanging a flag in a barbershop window, by posting a copy of the US Constitution on a whiteboard, or by beading American flags and eagles into traditional Native American regalia. Their sense of honor doesn’t just extend to the abstract idea of America, but to the literal people within each veteran’s community.
One experience that particularly touched Ms. Whyte was meeting a homeless veteran named Dennis. She found him up a pathway into the woods, living under a tarp. He said to her, “Mary, this couldn’t have come at a better time in my life. For the first time, I feel like something I did mattered.” She asked him if he would make the decision to serve if he could do it over again, and he responded, “In a minute.”
The Best, and The Worst
When working with the veterans, Ms. Whyte asked them about the best and worst parts of their service, so we posed the same question to her about WE THE PEOPLE. She told us that the most challenging aspect of the project was managing it all. From financing to completing the paintings and publishing the accompanying book, balancing a project of this scope and the way it grew into unexpected new territories was the most challenging part.
The best part? Getting to grow into unexpected new territories. Although managing the project was a challenge, she felt lucky to have the freedom as a woman to travel across the country to paint what she wanted to paint with the expectation of a better life. She has our veterans to thank for that.
Traveling around America filled her with gratitude. She said, “what an amazing country we live in. What an amazing country. What I loved best was being able to see and experience how other people live.”
The exhibit opened in Charleston in October with a grand weekend event. Nearly all of the veterans were able to attend, thanks to generous donations to Ms. Whyte’s Patriot Art Foundation. The Charleston Symphony Orchestra performed a two-night event in which they displayed photos of the paintings above them as they debuted original music to honor veterans and celebrate the exhibit. The veterans and their families were special guests at a brunch on the USS Yorktown aircraft carrier.
The exhibit will remain in Charleston through December 22, 2019, before traveling the country.
When she began the project seven years ago, Mary Whyte could never have envisioned the way it would blossom and change her life.
Ms. Whyte forged unexpected new territory when she decided to start The Patriot Art Foundation to serve veterans through art. The first mission of the foundation was to raise money to bring the veterans from her portraits to Charleston for the opening and give them the weekend of a lifetime.
Going forward, the foundation will be giving veterans a platform for self-expression, self-discovery, creativity, and healing through art. The Patriot Art Foundation is partnering with The Citadel, a military school in Charleston. Visit the foundation’s website to learn more about its mission and how you can get involved.
We asked Ms. Whyte if she had any other wisdom to share from her incredible journey with WE THE PEOPLE. She told us that, “one of the things I hope this does is encourage people to take a chance and step out to do something that’s meaningful. To show them that, yes, one person can do this. That’s what I hope that this will do.”
Ms. Whyte has created something truly meaningful with WE THE PEOPLE. The result of her courage is a beautiful, lasting portrait of America that gives appreciation and meaning to our veteran’s sacrifice.
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