Journey along Lowcountry road sheds light on mankind

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Journey along Lowcountry road sheds light on mankind

Published Saturday, December 29, 2012   |  932 Words  |  

Bible verses from my father's lips often ring in my ears.

Last week it was "Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law," from the Psalms. It kept popping up as I caressed the pages of a new book about the Lowcountry, Mary Whyte's "Down Bohicket Road: An Artist's Journey."

Through watercolors and words, Whyte opens our eyes to wonderful things we zoom by without noticing. We see the beauty of Gullah women living and toiling along Bohicket Road on Johns Island south of Charleston. Bohicket Road is 12 miles of asphalt embraced by live oaks, often choked with people in a mad dash for Charleston or the beaches of Kiawah Island.

Whyte's paintings tap the brakes, and usher us inside the vegetable stands, small blue homes and the Hebron St. Francis Senior Center. We're taken into a kaleidoscopic world of handmade quilts, swirling hats, brooms, mops, irons and sweet potato pie.

Her artistic skills stirred Pat Conroy of Beaufort to say Whyte "could easily be named the first visual poet laureate of South Carolina," and Gibbes Museum of Art executive director Angela Mack of Charleston to place Whyte in the ranks of Andrew Wyeth and Stephen Scott Young.

The beauty of it, though, is that a skinny white lady from an Ohio family that did not embrace other cultures moved to Seabrook Island after a wrestling match with cancer, and was embraced by a robust Gullah woman who had every reason to turn a cold shoulder. The book is the result of a 20-year friendship.

Whyte's paintings also opened the eyes of the women of Bohicket Road.

"They go through life on faith," Whyte said, "but here's somebody from the outside, an artist, coming in and saying, 'I see this as beautiful. I see this as worthy.' It was something they were just not accustomed to."

'Vanilla sister'

Alfreda LaBoard put down a pan of hot cornbread to hug the stranger at the Wednesday morning Bible study and quilting session wrapped around lunch at the senior center. Whyte had tiptoed into the creaking old building on Bohicket Road, hoping to find a few willing models for an art class she was to teach. Whyte still can't explain exactly how or why, but she was welcomed into a closed Gullah community, and her life and career took new direction and meaning.

Alfreda immediately served her a plate of fried fish, macaroni and cheese, red rice, collard greens, cornbread and bread pudding -- to put some meat on her bones. They would become best friends, with Alfreda calling Whyte her "vanilla sister."

"I just felt after I got to know them and heard their stories and saw their strength -- so many of them raised families on their own as single mothers -- and just the history, their own true history and the African-American history, that no one was painting this, no one was really telling this," Whyte said.

She urged Alfreda to write down the stories of her grandmother, an island midwife who made herbal medicinal concoctions. But Alfreda didn't have time, running a vegetable stand, raising her own children, other children and then grandchildren. Whyte started writing the stories behind her paintings, and 10 years ago produced a book called "Alfreda's World."

The new book takes us deeper in the lives of Alfreda, Georgeanna, Tesha, Mariah, Lilly and Diamond.

"The women stand up and say, 'Thank you, God, for getting me up this morning, helping me put on my clothes, and bless the hands that prepared this meal.' Such simple, basic needs that show such appreciation and gratitude," Whyte said. "This notion of 'in God we trust,' these women get it on a daily basis and that's how they live their lives."

Making a quilt

Sadly, the book includes Alfreda's funeral six years ago. Two large paintings were perched on easels by the coffin -- one of Alfreda cooking "bent over a dented aluminum pot, with a colorful scarf tied around her head," Whyte writes, and the other "of her wearing a frothy orange hat."

Whyte was called forward in the crowded, sweltering church to give a eulogy. She tells the story in an essay she calls "Steal Away to Jesus."

"What I think Alfreda would want us to remember is this: No matter how hard life gets at times, we are still under the protection of a loving God," Whyte said.

"And that real wealth comes in the richness of having friends and family, and not in the thickness of your wallet.

"For Alfreda, living a bountiful life was like making a quilt. We are like scraps of fabric: some are beautiful, and some are torn; some are colorful, and some are faded. Each piece of fabric is unique, and not particularly useful by itself. It is only when we stitch the pieces together side by side that we have a complete quilt. Only when every piece touches the others is the quilt finished and beautiful and whole."

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