American veterans take center stage in 'We the People'

Joel Oliphint

Recently, a Vietnam veteran had a bone to pick with artist Mary Whyte. He had just ordered a signed copy of one of her books, and to his eyes, the signature appeared to be computer generated. Whyte decided to give him a call, explaining that the signature was, in fact, her own, written in black Sharpie. After resolving the misunderstanding, the two talked some more.

The Vietnam vet told Whyte about seeing her exhibition, “We the People: Portraits of Veterans in America,” which is currently on view at Columbus' National Veterans Memorial and Museum and features 50 watercolor paintings of U.S. veterans, one from each state. “He went on to tell me how much this meant to him, going to see this exhibition, and he started to cry on the phone,” Whyte said in a call last week. “I mean, this is a 72-year-old Vietnam veteran who’s seen the worst of it. He had two deployments and almost died on the second one. But for him to say how powerful this was, it’s especially meaningful to me and makes me especially grateful that I had done this.”

“We the People,” which can be experienced via an impeccably produced virtual tour, was a seven-year journey for Whyte, which involved traveling all over the country and spending time with many veterans, then narrowing the project down to 50 subjects. The entire time, she kept the project secret so that the paintings would be fresh and new when they were finished, and also because Whyte wasn’t entirely sure she’d be able to pull it off. “There were several times when I thought, ‘Do I have the resources to do this?’ Because as I was doing these paintings, I had to be making income in another way,” she said.

For each painting, Whyte spent time shadowing a veteran and taking photos while observing them in their daily lives. “I was not going after veterans of high rank or who had earned significant medals. I wanted them to be average, everyday men and women who raised their hand, because on that first day, none of them knew what they were going to get into,” she said.

Whyte also interviewed each subject, asking a series of questions — where they grew up, what made them join the military, what was the most challenging aspect of military service — and then using the knowledge, photographs and her own imagination to come up with a distinct setting for each portrait. In one instance, she listened carefully to a lobsterman’s description of a rogue wave and then depicted the man on a boat with a wave crashing down.

In another painting of an astronaut named Winston, Whyte opted to show him in the huge expanse of outer space. “I wanted all of them to have an emotional impact, and the scale is important. In some of the paintings, they're smaller, and I want the viewer to come up more closely and see it all at once. But then other ones, like the astronaut, we're talking about the universe, so it had to be big and vast,” she said. “I even had the frame maker create this frame that was actually a triptych that came together and was slightly concave. I wanted the viewer to have this feeling as though they're looking out the window at Winston coming back in from a spacewalk.”

Over the course of the first completed painting in 2012 to the completion of the project at the end of 2019, Whyte said she learned much from the veterans. “I took away a lot from them, particularly about getting past the fear of something and seeing something through, and the importance of a job well done,” she said. “Fear is what prevents many people from tackling anything — fear of failure, fear of not being able to complete it, fear that you've completed it and no one likes it. We just have to keep powering on.”

Whyte has kept in touch with many of the vets, and even more importantly, the veterans depicted in “We the People” have formed relationships with each other. “There's a real brotherhood, I learned, with the veterans. When they meet another veteran, there's this immediate bond and connection,” she said.

The true reward for Whyte was watching the reactions of the veterans as they took in the paintings for the first time. “To have them walk in and see their paintings... it was a wonderful experience. On the opening night ... the veterans were the stars,” she said. “Over and over, the veterans confirmed to me that there is nothing else like America and the fundamentals on which this country were established. The freedoms that they fought so hard for are, indeed, still worth fighting for, and especially [now].”

"Long Haul" by Mary Whyte (37.75 x 28.5 inches). Truck driver, Toledo, Ohio; Marines, 1968-1969.


"America" by Mary Whyte (watercolor on paper, 40 x 53 inches). Native American traditional dancer; Aberdeen, South Dakota; Army 1986-1988.