Twenty-one years ago, artist, writer, and teacher Mary Whyte met one of her best friends in the most unexpected of places. Whyte, a recent Charleston transplant from Philadelphia, needed models for an art class when she happened upon Hebron Church on Johns Island.
When Whyte entered the kerosene-heated fellowship hall off of Bohicket Road, Alfreda LaBoard immediately put down her pan of cornbread, wrapped Whyte in a hug, and invited her to a Wednesday night dinner with fellow female church members.
"A voice in my head said this is important," Whyte recalls. "These women had a story that needed to be told." Today, she is still telling that story.
LaBoard became Whyte's best friend and a true source of inspiration and wisdom for Whyte's artistic career. In 2003, her paintings of LaBoard and other Gullah descendants of coastal Carolina slaves culminated in Alfreda's World, a museum exhibition and book that received both regional and national recognition. Whyte continues to tell Alfreda's story with the release of Down Bohicket Road, a visual narrative that includes over 20 years of her watercolors and stories. Whyte still paints most of the women in LaBoard's original group, as well as their children and grandchildren.
"We could have reprinted Alfreda's World, but I thought, 'Why don't we just keep going here?'" Whyte says. "I always told Alfreda that she needed to write down everything as she remembered it from her own grandmother. Here's another opportunity to share more of that wisdom."
LaBoard passed away almost six years ago, but Whyte still meets with Hebron Church's Wednesday night group for a hot meal, Bible study, and quilting each week. "These women have influenced my life and certainly deepened my faith," Whyte says. "Career-wise, they put me on a path I never dreamed as an artist."
In the face of critical acclaim, Whyte still quietly labors for the friends who have given inspiration and encouragement. Hebron Church was falling down when Whyte began painting LaBoard. Made of wood gathered from a shipwreck off of Kiawah Island, the oldest African American church on Johns Island was in need of structural help. Whyte has organized quite a few church fundraisers over the years and has given a large portion of the proceeds from her work to church renovations, which include fixing a structural lean, funding a new roof, and eradicating lead paint. The next goal for Whyte is running electricity in the church, which will allow the space to be used once again for community functions and Wednesday night gatherings.
"The Hebron Church is the most significant landmark on Johns Island," Whyte says. "Investment in the church for the good of the community was vital."
Whyte hopes that Down Bohicket Road begins another chapter for the next generation of LaBoard's family and friends. All of the royalties from the book will go to the Hebron Senior Center.
"This is their book — their story," Whyte says. "These women, their children and their children's children — they are the center."
Whyte adds, "We certainly don't plan what we paint. The painting finds us. Alfreda and her community gave me an incredible inspiration for what to paint, but also in life. The simplicity of what they are thankful for — long life and good health — resonates with me every day."
Down Bohicket Road launch party. Thurs. Nov. 29. Charleston Library Society, 164 King St. Downtown. (843) 723-9912
Hebron Church fundraiser. Fri. Nov. 30. Sandcastle, Kiawah Island