Charleston artist Mary Whyte secretly scoured the country painting portraits for seven years as part of her latest project, "We the People". Her ambition is as extraordinary as her subjects; our nation's veterans.
"I really believe our truest Americans really are our veterans," says Whyte.
Known for her watercolor paintings depicting American life, Whyte became part journalist part historian for her latest venture. She knew she wanted to depict a variety of veterans from each of the 50 states. But she wasn't exactly sure where to find them.
So, she stopped by the chamber of commerce in countless communities and made numerous phone calls.
"To find my window washer in Detroit, I must have called 20 window cleaning companies saying, 'Do you have a veteran? Do you have a veteran?' "
Whyte travelled to West Virginia to find a coal miner and met Kella Withhorn, a Native American, in Aberdeen, S.D. The Army veteran is painted with such precision it's hard to believe Whyte uses watercolors. What's more, the white fringe on the handmade Lakota regalia she's wearing isn't paint, but paper. Whyte has to plan ahead, leaving room for the highlights.
Whyte sketched and photographed the veterans where they live, then took the images and the veterans' stories back to her Charleston studio. There she recreated the settings, sometimes using her imagination, and tried to portray the rang of emotions she saw.
"It was everything from despair to absolute victory and contentment, to determination and maybe sadness in some paintings."
Whyte hopes people will connect with veterans they've never meet. She was fascinated by NASA astronaut Winston Scott. He's pictured behind a ten foot concave frame walking in a space suit.
"He said, 'You know Mary when you're out there if anything goes wrong there is no one to come get you.' I said, 'Winston wow, weren't you ever scared?' He said, 'Mary we were too well trained to be scared. We had a job to do.' "
Whyte says she still talks occasionally by phone with a homeless man she met in California. The watercolor called, "Bunker" shows Army veteran Dennis leaning down, surrounded by dark gashes that suggest gunfire, as well as bright splashes of red.
"He said, 'Mary serving in the military was probably the single and the only important thing that I ever did in my life.' "
Then, there's Hank. He's a 98 year-old World War II veteran who lives in New Jersey.
"Hank is a backyard gardener and he grows some of the biggest tomatoes I've ever seen," says Whyte.
His toothy smile stretches across a six foot frame as beads of light shine through his straw hat and freckle his face. Hank's eyes are so warm and inviting, they feel like a hug.
Whyte says each painting took at least ten days and was tucked away in storage once complete. The portraits were finally revealed together nearly a decade later at the City Gallery on Waterfront Park in Charleston. They will remain on display there until December 22nd, before travelling across the country.
Bill and Carol Steingrandt of Travelers Rest, S.C. were blown away by the exhibit.
"The one of the fireman, you can almost see the sadness of the destruction around him," said Carol Steingrandt.
Sally MacDonald of Louisville, K.Y. was moved as well.
"I think for her to take on this project is really a gift to our country."
Whyte hopes veterans across the nation will recongize themselves in her paintings. She even helped raise money to bring many of her subjects to Charleston for the collection's opening weekend. They came from as far away as Alaska, New Mexico and Oregon.
"It was an emotional, amazing moment."
Whyte's work is like a quilt, sewn together by a common thread.
"Most of the veterans that I interviewed and talked with said that serving in the military was the best thing that they ever did in their life," says Whyte. "It made them a better person."
Each found a cause greater than self. Together they protected a nation.