Charleston artist Mary Whyte wasn't thinking much about the direction of her work when she began painting a well-to-do South Carolina banker in 2007.
But by the time she'd finished, she'd shifted her focus from producing a likeness of one of the South's social and economic elites to documenting the near-forgotten ordinary folks trying to eke out a living in some of the region's poorest and most rapidly disappearing occupations.
Spurred by a newspaper article about the closing of a local textile plant, Whyte began talking about the story while her subject posed. And when he replied that most, if not all the mills and the jobs that went with them might be gone within a decade, she couldn't stop wondering about the giant shift that was redefining life across vast swaths of Dixie.
Not long afterward, Whyte began a series of watercolors that took her across 10 Southern states in three years. On each stop in her journey she looked for ways to capture the experiences of common people employed in such iconic but fast-vanishing Southern jobs as tobacco farmers, textile workers, cotton pickers and oyster shuckers.
What resulted from her epic endeavor is the evocative catalog of faces and figures showcased in "Mary Whyte: Working South," a collection of 50 watercolor portraits and drawings that runs through July 7 at the Peninsula Fine Arts Center in Newport News.
Previously on view at such venues as the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston and the Telfair Museum in Savannah, Ga., the traveling exhibit is part documentary record, part elegiac look at many fading ways of life. It's also a convincing demonstration of talent for an artist who knows how to wield a watercolor brush.
"This is a show that should attract artists as well as people who simply like looking at art," Pfac curator Michael Preble says.
"If you like to draw and you like doing watercolors, you need to come and see Mary Whyte's work. It's pretty clear she knows such masters as Wyeth, Sargent and Homer very well, and she combines those influences with an innate talent of her own."
Unusually large, boldly composed and meticulously detailed, Whyte's 2006 portrait "By a Thread" served as both a precursor and inspiration for the series, capturing the likeness of an aging female textile worker as she stands in the middle of a production line and gauges a long thin length of thread.
Head turned to the side — and arms outstretched almost all the way across the painting — her workmanlike gesture takes on a noticeably neo-classical, almost heroic form, transforming the woman into something larger than life. But this big emblematic portrait has a remarkably personal and intimate feel at the same time, in part because of the care Whyte takes in rendering the smallest details of the woman's flowered work smock, her pilled and unraveling woven gloves and her aging skin.
Behind this wonderfully rendered likeness, Whyte conjures up a series of much more quickly and schematically drawn bins of spooled thread, building a dark, near-abstract background for her much more brightly illuminated subject.
But there's just enough information there to keep her sweeping, gesture-filled renderings in check — and balance them off with the much higher degree of detail and realism found in the portrait.
Whyte uses a similar approach in several other masterful paintings, including "Pearl" — a 2009 portrait that depicts an Urbanna oyster shucker — and "Spinner" — a 2007 likeness that explores the tired face and tattered clothing of another South Carolina textile worker.
As in many of Whyte's other images, these subjects look back from the surface directly at the viewer — giving us a chance to gaze into their faces and eyes as well as study their figures.
Other paintings, such as a 2008 portrait of a New Orleans shoe-shine man, offer a broader glimpse of their subject's working environment, in this case a vintage two-seat stand complete with old-fashioned tufted cushions and metal footrests.
But as handsome as this temple of grooming may seem, it also has the worn, frayed at-the-edges look of a relic from times gone by.
Maybe that's why the man is sitting, waiting and reading the newspaper rather than busily perfecting a customer's shoe shine.
Find Erickson's arts stories at dailypress.com/entertainment/arts and Facebook.com/dpentertainment.
Want to go?
"Mary Whyte: Working South"
Where: Peninsula Fine Arts Center, 101 Museum Drive, Newport News
When: Through July 7
Cost: $7.50 adults, $4 children 6-12
Information: 757-596-8175 or http://www.pfac-va.org
Online: Go to dailypress.com/workingsouth to see a photo gallery of Whyte's work.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun