Editor's note: The following article was reprinted in Resource Library on December 18, 2008 with permission of the author and the Hickory Museum of Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the Hickory Museum of Art directly at P. O. Box 2572, Hickory, NC 28603, or through either this phone number or web address:


The Legacy of Paul W. Whitener

by Thomas R. Perryman


The years between the two world wars, particularly the decade between 1929 and 1939, was a time of intense national self-examination for American writers and artists. The turbulence of the 1930s drained much of the energy of the avant-garde 1910s and 1920s. Turning away from European trends, many American artists put forth an effort to establish a more comfortable native posture that would express their commitment to political, cultural and social problems, creating a more socially conscious art to document the American scene. Two distinctive movements developed in reviving the native tradition of Realism: one concentrating on the mood of sullen endurance found in both the northern cities and the impoverished South, and the other expressing an optimistic vision of open landscapes.[1]

These movements have strong roots in the South. In 1930, the Agrarians, a group of southern writers associated with Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, published I'll Take My Stand, a series of essays upholding the legitimacy of a Southern, land-based, folk heritage.[2] Such essays expressed primary interest in regionalism with its associated economies, politics and culture as opposed to a centralization of American life. Following this allegiance to one's own territory, many artists turned to local themes. Whether documenting the conditions of lifestyle or glorifying the beauty of the surrounding lands, the subjects were presented in realistic style, albeit often nostalgic and sentimental. These artists thought art should grow from the environment and that they, as artists, should play a vital role in their society.[3]

Paul Austin Wayne Whitener was the personification of these ideals in western North Carolina, although he never identified himself with them. With his art, he shared the beauty of the North Carolina mountains and the Catawba Valley, where he was born and lived all of his life. He was also the determined visionary who would improve the cultural life of western North Carolina by establishing the Hickory Museum of Art, one of the first art museums in the South to concentrate on the encouragement and appreciation of American art.

Born in 1911 in Lincoln County, North Carolina, Whitener grew up in Hickory, North Carolina, a city in which he would have a tremendous impact. During his high school and then college years at Duke University, his energies were devoted primarily to football, where he earned the nickname "the Galloping Ghost."[4] As a journalism student on a football scholarship at Duke, Whitener developed an interest in art and submitted an occasional cartoon for the University newspaper, the Duke Chronicle. After three years at Duke, his college career ended in 1935 due to a number of sports-related injuries. It was at this time when he began to take his artistic endeavors more seriously.

After leaving Duke University, Whitener began work with a state transportation agency in the mountain resort area of Little Switzerland, North Carolina. It was here that Whitener met an art student, Mildred McKinney, who became his wife in August, 1936. Mickey, as she is better known, urged Whitener to seriously pursue his artistic talent. She introduced him to Frank Stanley Herring, a faculty member of the Grand Central Art School (New York City) who summered in the mountains of North Carolina. For a number of years, Mickey had been modeling for Herring during his summer vacations. While Herring came to the southern mountains to pursue his own artistic endeavors, he agreed to give instruction to Whitener whom he considered to have much promise.[5] In 1949 Herring and others opened the Burnsville Painting Classes, a summer school located on a forty-acre tract outside of Spruce Pine, North Carolina.

Whitener also enrolled in the Ringling Summer School of Art, based in Sarasota, Florida, and held annually in Little Switzerland. There he studied with Donald Blake, an instructor from the Florida school.[6] Blake and Whitener soon became good friends and often traveled together to various mountain locations to paint, outside of class experiences.

In 1940, at an art exhibition in Asheville, North Carolina, the Whiteners met the renowned portrait painter, Wilford Seymour Conrow. Conrow was a Princeton graduate who occupied an apartment and studio in Carnegie Hall and owned a summer residence in the North Carolina mountains. Whitener petitioned Conrow to instruct him in portrait painting. Although it was not his practice, Conrow was so impressed with Whitener's work that he accepted Whitener as his only student. For the next fourteen years Conrow worked with Whitener every summer, sometimes for as long as two months.

Whitener was in demand as a portraitist but his love was landscapes, especially the mountains of North Carolina. Brilliant colors, fall scenes and vibrant, undulating hills are characteristic of his work. Repetitive contouring, shadowing and diagonal blending of lines encourage the eye to travel distances down the mountain sides and up to the clouded heavens. Whitener's work has an over-all effect of heightened sensory awareness.[7] He was a thorough technician, beginning his canvases with carefully drawn monochrome underpaintings, but working with spontaneity and freedom. His approach to portraiture was just as meticulous, learning as much as he could about the subject in order to capture its very essence. Whitener's portraits are paintings of people, warm and real, not stiff replications of the human form.

During his years of study with Conrow, in addition to developing his painting, Whitener often discussed the idea of an art museum in Hickory. Conrow was most encouraging and pushed Whitener to pursue the collection and promotion of works by American artists. It was Conrow's contention that in most of the leading art museums, European art was the primary focus with American art being a stepchild.[8] With the desire to champion the importance of American art, Whitener, with help from his wife and Conrow, and later A. Alex Shuford, Jr., a local industrialist, began planning for the museum. In a personal journal he wrote:

Having discussed their views at large from time to time a group [of] conscientious citizens assembled themselves in September, 1943, to discuss the possibility of organizing an art association in Hickory, North Carolina. In the broadest prospective, the aim was to form an active organization working toward a permanent Museum of Art in Hickory -- one which would embrace all the arts and crafts of the upper Piedmont region of North Carolina. To this long sought program, the idea was dedicated.[9]

In November, 1943, with neither a home nor a collection, this association held its first exhibition in a vacant office building in downtown Hickory. There, the Hickory Museum of Art was born, becoming only the second art museum in the state.[10] It was the unanimous decision of the association members that Whitener be named Director of the Museum, a position he held until his death in 1959.

More than six hundred people attended the Museum's initial exhibition during its short run. Included were works by artists from Hickory as well as from New York, Pennsylvania and Florida. The exhibition was an unqualified success, securing the community's support of the museum project. Conrow commented, "I have known what was going on here for some time, in a general way, but I must say that what has been done here far surpasses my expectations."[11] In February, 1944, the Museum was publicly recognized and chartered in the state of North Carolina by Governor Clyde Hoey at a dedication ceremony held in the ballroom of Hotel Hickory.

After securing the Museum's first home Whitener began organizing exhibitions and aiming his attention on establishing a collection. Support came from every corner of the community especially from the prominent families of the city. From the first exhibition Shuford purchased the painting, Burke Mountain, Vermont, by F. Ballard Williams, an officer of the National Academy of Design, beginning the Museum's collection. During the late 1940s and 1950s, much of the Museum's current collection was acquired, primarily through gifts. Conrow and a number of artists from New York spent many of their summers in the mountains of North Carolina and expressed interest in this fledgling southern art museum dedicated to promoting American art. Whitener proved to be a persuasive director, able to solicit numerous gifts of works of art for the Museum from collectors, and frequently, the artists themselves.

Whitener's determination was also recognized by Hobart Nichols, president of the National Academy of Design. During one of Whitener's frequent trips to New York, Conrow introduced the young museum director to Nichols, who immediately pledged his support. Donating some of his own collection, Nichols persuaded many others from the Academy to do the same. As a result, the Museum acquired important works by such artists as Thomas Cole, Asher Brown Durand, John Frederick Kensett, Thomas Worthington Whittredge, Edward Henry Potthast, and Robert Lewis Reid.

Whitener accepted self-imposed discipline and pursued methodical habits and perfectionism. This was evident in his dedication to the Museum as well as in his own art. Although Whitener's days were filled with meetings and fund drives, his passion for painting endured. His portraits continued to be in demand as well as his highly stylized landscapes, featuring Whitener's characteristic palette. He continued to fine tune his technique paying much attention to well developed underpainting.

While on vacation during the summer of 1955, Whitener suddenly became dizzy and experienced difficulties with his coordination. Ultimately, a malignant brain tumor was discovered. Surgery could only partially remove the tumor, leaving Whitener paralyzed on his right side. In a weakened state, yet true to his determination Whitener taught himself to paint again, this time with his left hand. His style became more imaginative and impressionistic, producing highly colored and visionary works in several media including casein.[12] Though in declining health, Whitener continued to paint on an almost daily basis for the final three years of his life. He completed his last painting only three months prior to his death in 1959.

Upon Whitener's death, the Trustees of the Museum asked his widow to assume the duties of the Museum Director on a temporary basis. She had worked with Whitener more closely than anyone as he built and developed the Museum. Reluctantly she accepted, and the temporary position soon became a permanent one. The collection continued to grow as she maintained Whitener's contacts, made many new ones of her own, and garnered even greater community support. She remained in that capacity until her retirement in 1996.[13] Remarrying in 1966 to Richard Coe, Mickey never forgot Whitener's original intentions or his dream. Until her retirement as Museum Director, in 1996, she displayed the same drive and determination that had been such a prominent part of Whitener's character.

Throughout its history the Hickory Museum of Art has known four locations, rapidly outgrowing each one in turn. Paul Whitener had only known two of those homes. In 1986 the Museum moved into its current location as the primary tenant in the Arts and Science Center of Catawba Valley. Whitener's original aim of developing an awareness and appreciation of American art has continued to this day. The Museum's current collection of over 1,700 significant pieces perpetuates his aspirations into the new millennium.


1 Milton Brown, Sam Hunter, John Jacobus, Naomi Rosenblum, and David Sokol, "Realism and the American Scene," American Art, (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1979) 444.

2 Patricia Phagan, "Introduction," The American Scene and The South, (Augusta, GA: Georgia Museum of Art, 1996): 9.

3 Matthew Baigell, "American Scene Painting," Dictionary of American Art, (New York: Harper and Row, 1976): 11 - 12.

4 Personal interview with Mildred M. Coe, former Executive Director, Hickory Museum of Art, December 1997.

5 Ibid.

6 Doug Burton, Robert Winter and Margaret Landrus, Arts Insight, (Hickory, NC: Lenoir Rhyne College, February 1984).

7 Margaret Landrus and B.R. Winter, "Fleeting Moments," Arts Insight, (Hickory, NC: Lenoir Rhyne College, September 1984).

8 Ibid.

9 Rodney Ouzts, "The Museum 1944 - 1984," The Hickory Museum of Art, The 40th Anniversary 1944 - 1984, (Hickory, NC: Hickory Museum of Art, 1984) 4.

10 Burton, op. cit.

11 Coe, loc. cit.

12 Ibid.

13 Ouzts, op. cit., 6.

The author would like to thank Mildred M. Coe, former Museum Director and widow of Paul W. Whitener, for assistance with this article, and photographers Fanjoy/Labrenz for their time and generosity.


About the author

Thomas R. Perryman was curator of exhibitions for the Hickory Museum of Art and a member of the board of the North Carolina Museums Council. Prior to his tenure at the Hickory, he had been director of the Piedmont Arts Association, Virginia. He held an M.A. in art history from the University of Virginia and an undergraduate degree in arts administration from East Carolina University


Resource Library editor's note

The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on December 18, 2008, with permission of the Hickory Museum of Art, which was granted to TFAO on December 16, 2008.

This article appeared in the March - April 1998 issue of American Art Review.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Kristina Allen of the Hickory Museum of Art and Shana Herb Johannessen for their help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

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