The Hickory Museum of Art's founder and first director Paul Austin Wayne Whitener was born in Lincoln County, NC, and was educated in the Hickory Public Schools and at Duke University where he played football on a scholarship. He met his future wife Mildred (Mickey) McKinney when he was working with the planners of the Blue Ridge Parkway near Little Switzerland NC where she lived. She was then taking painting lessons; and he became enchanted both with her and with trying painting.
“ … When Mildred was 19, she was taking art lessons from Mr. Herring [Frank Stanley Herring 1894-1966]. One day, her cousin … introduced her to a young man. His name was Paul W. Whitener from Hickory. … He and Mildred married in 1936 and moved to Hickory. Paul started painting with Mr. Herring … Chance meetings gave a legacy to us all in North Carolina.” (From article in the Mitchell News-Journal, September 8th, 2010.)
Newspaper photo on right of Paul and Mickey shortly after their August 22, 1936 wedding. (From a July 2, 2002 interview with Mickey in the Yancey Common Times Journal.)
Whitener did pursue some more formal art instruction; but he once said that "any skill I have been able to acquire [as a painter] has come largely through experiment." By the early 1940's, Whitener had become an accomplished artist who painted both portraits and nature, the portraits often on commission such as this one of Kathryn R. Frye (wife of surgeon Dr. Glenn R. Frye after whom the Frye Hospital is named), though also often through their years together, Mickey was Paul's model. Paul continued to paint even as he pursued his growing passion first to establish an art museum in Hickory and then as its director for fifteen years. (For more about the Museum's history, click here.)
The selections of Paul's oil nature paintings below show how his style changed over the years (or not?) and also it demonstrates his particular love for the Western North Carolina Mountains. Left to right is Fleeting Moments (1944), Catawba Valley (1946), Windy Afternoon (1948), Snow (1951), Blue Ridge Parkway (1955), and Autumn Leaves (1959).
In the mid-1950's Paul developed a brain tumor that paralyzed his right side and he had to re-learn to paint with his left hand and with new tools, cato ink and casein paint, dabbing the paint rather than stroking it. During the last two years of his illness, Mickey spent most of her time taking care of him while his father tended to the Museum's day-to-day business.
The Museum collected over 200 art objects under Paul's leadership. Many of the works came at the advice of Wilford Conrow (1880-1957), a successful portrait painter in New York City who summered in the North Carolina mountains and became a friend and mentor to Paul. With Conrow’s guidance, Paul and Mickey learned of many accomplished painters, establishing lasting personal relationships with some of them, as evidenced by the warm letters they exchanged. (HMA has in its files the often handwritten personal replies from these artists that speak of Paul's letters, though few of Paul's own letters remain at HMA.) In November 1944, an exhibit featuring a selection of Conrow's portraits opened at HMA as the museum's first one-person show.
He loved the mountains and he studied them constantly. Paul would go out and view a mountain or a landscape that he liked. He would make sketches and notations on color… then would come home and paint them in his studio. He would sometimes paint small sketches on location, but usually, most of the big things that he did, he painted from memory. (Reminiscence by Mickey Whitener Coe.)
You will find a twelve minute 2011 YouTube video about Paul and HMA's founding here. It features several people who knew Paul, talking fondly about him.
This Wikipedia article's details correspond to information in HMA's files.
This post is #4 of the 75 stories to celebrate HMA's 75 years. All images are from HMA's files.
Post by Karin Borei, HMA Project Coordinator, writer and editor as needed, and HMA blogger since our blog's inception in March 2015.