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Paying Tribute

Paying Tribute
October 2019

Mary Whyte’s latest work showcases veterans from 50 states

Artist Mary Whyte displays her portraits of veterans.

In 2011, acclaimed watercolorist Mary Whyte used skilled brushstrokes to depict blue-collar workers whose industries were fading away throughout the Deep South in her exhibition “Working South.” For her latest project, the painter turns her focus to American veterans, showcasing the myriad ways those who have served in the military continue to give to their communities once they return home. For the past seven years, Whyte has traveled across the country to document one veteran from each state in their daily jobs, including an astronaut, a coal miner, a farmer, and a taxidermist. “We the People: Portraits of Veterans in America” opens October 25 at City Gallery at Waterfront Park, where many of her subjects will see their portraits for the first time. We talk with Whyte about how the concept developed and the reactions from veterans.

Lessons Learned: I worked largely in secret. It was a big, ambitious project, and I wanted to make sure I could do it. Almost no one knew about it for years. I learned a lot of lessons from the veterans, and one was to keep going­—just keep going.

50 States: After “Working South” toured several museums, I was pondering what my next exhibition might be. That’s when I came upon the idea to paint one person from each state and make a cumulative portrait of America. Then, the question became: How would I choose one person from each state and what makes a person most “American”? That’s when I decided to make it a continuing thread of how all these people I’m portraying from different walks of life and backgrounds have served in the military.

Joanie works on a Texas construction site.

Local Beginnings: One80 Place [a homeless shelter] was the first stop I made when I got this idea. I met with a group of about eight men. They liked the concept, and one thing I found interesting was they said, “Mary, we love this, but we want to make sure you get us from the top down”—meaning they wanted me to portray veterans who are very successful today in America as well as those who are struggling.

Personal Connection: Both my parents served in the Red Cross in World War II. My mother was a ballerina. She used to teach dance in the canteens as a way to help troops relieve stress. My father drove an ambulance.

Veterans' Reactions: The veterans and their families were really moved by the portraits. They view it as an honor to represent their state and other veterans. I like painting everyday people. That’s what I wanted to focus on with this project—the veterans who signed up and served our country with honor and came back to their families, their communities, their work, and folded back into American society. 

In Gratitude: I want people to have a greater appreciation for the sacrifices our veterans have made—for their bravery and dedication. They put their lives on the line for their country, for the freedom we enjoy. We owe them our greatest gratitude.

Showing Honor: We are raising money to bring the veterans I’ve featured in the portraits to Charleston for the exhibition opening. So far, 30 of the 50 are coming. I’m really excited to see them again. We want to give them the weekend of a lifetime and honor them. After that, the exhibition will tour the country for a few years.

Hiroshi is a WWII veteran from Hawaii.

A Means of Expression: The purpose of the Patriot Art Foundation is to serve veterans through art by giving them a means of expression, discovery, and, in some cases, healing. I hope the paintings will connect the public with our veterans and give them a better understanding of the sacrifices they have made. The long-term vision is to keep all these paintings together on view to the American public. We hope that might happen here in the Lowcountry.

The exhibit opens this month with several celebratory activities planned:

- “We the People“ is on display at City Gallery at Waterfront Park from October 25 to December 22. Learn more about the exhibition and the companion book, and get details on all the associated celebrations, at

- Launch for the companion book We the People: Portraits of Veterans in America 6:30 p.m. Oct. 15, The Citadel, Holliday Alumni Center, 69 Hagood Ave.

- What the Veterans Have Taught Me luncheon with performance from members of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra 11 a.m Oct. 17, Charleston Marriott, 170 Lockwood Blvd.

- Charleston Symphony Orchestra Performance 7 p.m. Oct. 25-26, Gaillard Center, 95 Calhoun St.

- Patriot Art Foundation Yorktown Brunch 11 a.m Oct. 27, Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum, 40 Patriots Point Road


Photographs (Whyte) by Jack Alterman & (Portraits) Courtesy of Mary Whyte