Human frailty traps artist's spirit
By JAMIE JONES
© St. Petersburg Times,
SPRING HILL -- He had spent time perfecting her, painting her white as she lay on stones, her head resting in her arms, her eyes closed. The sky above was gray, and red flowers grew all around.
Raymond Whyte looked at his painting and tried to explain.
He could not.
"Damn it. Damn it!" he said.
Whyte pointed at his pictures, waved his arms, tried again to speak.
"No," he said plaintively. "No," he said.
Whyte is a painter who can no longer paint like he once did. The 78-year-old can no longer talk, except for a few words -- "yes," "no," and "damn it."
On Saturday, at his home in Spring Hill, where he has lived for 17 years, the celebrated artist sat among his paintings, others of which are in the private collections of Malcolm Forbes and J.P. Getty.
At least three of his pieces hung in the World Trade Center offices of the global securities firm Cantor Fitzgerald. Whyte has had 31 one-man exhibitions in New York City, London, San Francisco and Paris. His paintings sell for about $10,000 each.
Two years ago, Whyte had a stroke. His wife, Erica, heard him fall in the night. She found him lying on the floor, unable to move or speak. He was taken to Spring Hill Regional Hospital.
Mrs. Whyte watched her husband, frail and quiet, as he slept in a hospital bed. She wept, thinking about the man, once so strong, whom she has loved since she was 27 years old.
They met in a bar in Greenwich Village in New York. Mrs. Whyte, now 75, was a ballerina from Czechoslovakia with brown hair and green eyes.
Mr. Whyte, tall and muscular, grew up in New York. He started painting as a child, and his wife-to-be found it intriguing that he spent his free time copying the Rembrandts and Vermeers on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He was artistic and manly. He had been a boxer, a ski instructor and served in the Army.
"Oh, he was so handsome!" Mrs. Whyte recalls, giggling.
The couple fell in love and married. They traveled and talked and threw fabulous parties while living in New York. They spent long evenings with opera singers, painters, actors and poets.
They dealt in beautiful things. Mrs. Whyte designed dresses of silk and fur. Mr. Whyte disappeared in his studio after breakfast and painted until dinner. He used oils, mostly, and would work on several pieces at once, blending the classical techniques of Flemish painters with those of the surrealists.
Several times, Mr. Whyte painted his wife. In one picture, she sits wearing an elegant gray suit, and in another she wears a strapless blue gown as she stands alone.
In the weeks following her husband's stroke, Mrs. Whyte tried to be patient. But he still could not talk, and she started to give up hope that they would ever communicate again.
On her birthday, she walked into a room where Mr. Whyte was getting physical therapy. His therapist told her to sit down. She did, and looked toward her husband.
He smiled. He opened his mouth. "Happy birthday to you," he sang.
She cried and hugged him. He's on his way, she thought.
Physically, Mr. Whyte has improved. He has been working with therapists at the Hernando County YMCA, and they have helped him stand alone and walk. He swims several times a week to build his strength, and his mind remains sharp.
He can sing, but he still cannot talk. And more importantly, he cannot paint.
On Saturday, as Mr. Whyte sat in a chair in his studio, he was asked if he missed it.
"Yes, yes," he said quietly.
He was asked to point to some of his favorite paintings. He picked up photographs of his work. He tried to speak. "Damn it. Damn it!" he said, pointing to another stack across the room. Mrs. Whyte, married to her husband for 47 years, ran over. "Is this what you want?" she asked.
"Damn it," he replied, shaking his head.
His friend, John Angelini, watched from across the room.
"Can you see it? Can you see it?" he said excitedly. "Oh, the frustration of this man."
Also a painter, Angelini has known Mr. Whyte for 30 years.
Since the stroke, Angelini has visited Whyte twice a week, and has been trying to help his friend paint. But Whyte no longer has good use of his right arm, and must paint with his left.
They do watercolors together. Whyte gets irritable while dealing with watercolors, as he prefers oils. But he paints with them anyway, creating sweeping, impressionistic landscapes of blue or green. Recently, he painted a willowy female in the center of a field. That's more his style, Angelini's wife, Elisabeth, said.
The Angelinis had hoped it would get easier for Whyte. But it hasn't.
"He'll never get over it," Angelini said. "He will never stop feeling the frustration. These watercolors will never amount to anything. I would be really angry if Raymond hadn't painted so many paintings. He has a large body of work, and a legacy. That's something."
Others in the art community regard Whyte's stroke as a tremendous loss.
"The people who collect his work are very devoted collectors," said Tony Scalzo, owner of the Scalzo Gallery, south of Clearwater. The gallery sells Whyte's work and has about a dozen paintings left in its collection.
"Raymond is very witty," Scalzo said. "He's not how you would picture an artist. He's more businesslike. When we had showings, Raymond came in a three-piece suit . . . dapper, and very good at conversation."
In his living room Saturday, Whyte still was motioning for a painting. Finally, he saw what he wanted.
The painting showed a blue sky filled with white clouds. Part of the sky was slashed, and a piece of it was ripped off. A staple gun dangled from the top of the picture, which is titled Torn Sky. Whyte nodded at the painting in approval.
"Yes," he said softly, his eyes full of tears. "Yes," he repeated quietly, leaning back in his chair.
Mrs. Whyte said she will take her husband to speech therapy this week. She hopes he will talk again. And paint.
"He is a painter," she said. "That's just what he is."
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