By Gregg Bragg, The Island Connection Sr. Staff Writer
Nov. 1, 2019 was officially designated Mary Whyte Day by a unanimous vote of the Seabrook Island Town Council at its Oct. 22 meeting. SCOPE50, a grass-roots organization dedicated to voter registration, did the same for the Seabrook resident. Mayor Ron Ciancio and SCOPE50 President John Reynolds took turns presenting the world-renowned artist with ornate plaques commemorating the day during a ceremony held at the Seabrook Island Club. The date coincided with Whyte’s presentation of her latest work: “We the People: Portraits of Veterans in America.”
A reverent hush filled the air as an unannounced line of seven local veterans paraded through the crowded Grand Oaks Ballroom, setting the event in motion. All five branches of the armed services were represented, and each vet carried the colors of his or her branch. Several of the veterans served in Viet Nam, while others dated back as far as World War II. The crowd gushed praise on the local heroes as Whyte was introduced to the hometown throng, though most attendees knew perfectly well who she is. Despite the tsunami of accolades and the necessity of a first-person account of her work, Whyte somehow managed to make the event about anything but herself.
She spent the last seven years traveling the United States with the goal of interviewing and painting a portrait of a veteran from each of the 50 states. Working in secret from her sanctum on Seabrook Island, she started with a large map, tagged it with yellow when contact had been made in a given state and colored the state red when the work was complete. The veterans she chose needed to represent a cross section of America, from all walks of life.
“This work changed me. … and I took three lessons away from it,” said Whyte.
The first lesson she learned was the overriding importance her subjects felt “to being part of something bigger than themselves.”
Whyte recounted one subject telling her he’d written a blank check to the American people using his life as collateral.
“And they’re still doing it. … That’s not exactly what I saw, but it’s what I felt,” she said of her success in capturing the moment.
The second lesson she gleaned was, “never let fear stop you.” Whyte associated the observation with her interview and portrait of an astronaut. He responded to her question about being afraid by telling her they were too well trained to be afraid of a spacewalk.
Her final takeaway is that “America is still a country worth fighting for.” The cross section she hoped for came through in spades. It includes astronauts, cowboys, window washers, boxers, construction workers and laundry staff, among others.
Interestingly, Whyte paid for her adventure out of her own pocket, including compensating subjects for their time. She has since initiated the Patriot Art Foundation. The cooperative made it possible for several of Whyte’s new “friends” to make an all-expense paid trip to Charleston for the launch of an exposition of the portraits. Charleston is the best option for many, and anyone who says “a picture is worth a thousand words” hasn’t seen one of Whyte’s – her “word count” is astronomical.
“We the People: Portraits of Veterans in America,” opened on Oct. 25 at The City Gallery at Joe Riley Waterfront Park.
“It’s right across from the pineapple fountain,” said Whyte.
All 50 portraits will be on display there until Dec. 22. There’s also a book of the exposition in both hard cover and paperback versions that is available at Indigo Books in the Freshfields Village shopping area.
For information on scheduled appearances of “We the People” or ways you can help others visit their portraits, go to patriotartfoundation.org.