On the front lines are folks like Wade, an oysterman from Apalachicola, Fla., and Annie, an elevator operator from Jackson, Miss. There's also Mr. Noah, a shoe shiner in New Orleans, and Elaine, a textile mill worker in Easley, S.C.
These are just a few of the people that Charleston painter Mary Whyte met on her quest to document the vanishing industries of the South. The project took her to all 10 Southern states over the course of five years. The resulting portraits, accompanied by written descriptions of her experiences, are included in her new book, Working South. The original paintings, featuring custom handmade frames by Whyte's husband Smith Coleman, will be traveling to museums across the South over the next few years, including a stop in Charleston at the Gibbes Museum of Art in the summer of 2012.
Whyte was inspired to start the project after seeing an article in a Greenville newspaper about a textile mill closing. An unnamed worker was pictured on the front page, and Whyte thought about how many other people live under the radar waiting for their jobs to be phased out. A month later, Whyte was carrying her sketchbook into a mill.
From there, the project developed organically as she brainstormed other shrinking fields — a crab picker, a drive-in movie operator, a funeral band. Friends suggested ideas, provided connections, and Whyte started traveling across the country to meet and paint these people. Most of them initially shied away from her attention, surprised that anyone would want to focus on them, but Whyte learned to help them loosen up.
"When you ask somebody something about what they do, most people are flattered, and they open up," Whyte says. "Almost everybody, when I told them what my project was, they were interested. The models were completely forthcoming. I'm a total stranger, and they invited me into their home. They were very generous."
In her lovely prose, Whyte writes about Leslie and Sally Gardner, a 70-something couple that runs one of the last remaining "cook-up" shacks along N.C.'s Roanoke River. While they used to catch the herring themselves, they now must buy it from a neighboring town due to over-fishing of the river. In Whyte's portrait of Leslie, he carries a plastic tub of shining, headless fish.
For another painting, Whyte visited the 100-year-old Scotch Lumber Company in Fulton, Ala. There she met George Williams, who took a moment to remove his hard hat and pose beside a mammoth saw. As with Williams, time was of the essence in many cases.
"Very often I didn't have a lot of time to spend with the model because they were working, and I couldn't take them away from their jobs, so I would either trail them around with a sketchbook or a camera or try and talk to them during a break," Whyte says. "I did a lot of sketches and took a lot of photos, then I would come back to my studio and do the finished painting."
While Whyte does much of her work at home on Seabrook Island, she also settled into a new studio over the course of the project. She rents a house in the Upstate from Doug and Billie Hogg, who were initially painting subjects. Doug is a retired textile mill overseer, and he and his wife Billie literally live off the land, boasting a garden, greenhouses, a produce stand, and beehives. They became fast friends, and Whyte still paints in the house during the summer months, joining the family for a noontime meal of food from their garden.
While Whyte only painted 30 portraits for the exhibit, she regrets not having more time to track down other workers like a butcher, a drawbridge operator, or a milkman. Others, however, simply weren't keen on being included in the project.
"A few businesses bristled at the idea that I would imply their industries were vanishing," Whyte says. "And I was shown the door, several times."
But though she has some regrets, she learned a lot from the project.
"If anything, it made me realize how hard some people work and how hard some jobs are," Whyte says. "They're really under the radar. Most of America doesn't see this kind of job."