'Long overlooked' Lowcountry artist Sam Doyle to be celebrated at ARTworks, Penn Center

eshaw@islandpacket.comSeptember 20, 2013 

  • IF YOU GO
    • WHERE: ARTworks, 2127 Boundary St., Beaufort
    • WHEN: Opening reception is 2-5 p.m. Sept. 22. Exhibition runs through Oct. 6. On Oct. 10, Penn Center will share their collection, as well as host a show and sale of student art.
    • COST: Tickets to the opening reception are $25, but attendance is free for the remainder of the exhibit.
    • DETAILS: www.artworksinbeaufort.org

Sam Doyle's yard was a mess.

The St. Helena Island laundry worker-turned artist spent years gradually filling his property with some pretty outlandish lawn ornaments: his paintings.

Of course, there was also the large American flag, the small shack where his wife and children used to sell sodas and sandwiches, the modest two-story house in the background. But the paintings -- leaning on rocks, stacked on a picnic table, propped against bushes and trees, all but growing out of the grass itself -- served as an impromptu outdoor gallery, or as Doyle liked to call it, a history lesson.

Whether depicting prominent members of the St. Helena community, such as the first black midwife, or issues of national importance, like Abraham Lincoln freeing the slaves, Doyle's paintings resonated in the Lowcountry and beyond, and his artwork became even more popular and valued after his death in 1985.

An assortment of his works on loan from private collections will be available for viewing at ARTworks in Beaufort beginning with a celebratory reception Sept. 22 and running through Oct. 6. Nearly 30 paintings will be on display.

"I thought it was time for the community to really celebrate a local hero," said Claudette Humphrey, the chief organizer of the celebration. "A lot of people thought he was plain nuts. They laughed at his work, but he didn't care. I think he's been long overlooked."

What Doyle lacked in polish he made up for in heart. A self-taught artist, he painted on plywood boards and pieces of old tin roofing, anything that was easily found. A rusty refrigerator door. A bit of fiberboard. Even his paint cans became works of art when he was finished with them.

His bold color choices and wide brush strokes created paintings that were rudimentary yet evocative. Doyle once said that he wasn't an artist who could "catch you like you look," but instead he could paint you from "the mind's eye."

One painting brought in for the show, titled "Com On," is a portrait of a woman against a blue background. She has a mat of applied tar for hair and a single blue dot for an eye. The painting has rough edges and more than a few layers of dirt from being left out in Doyle's yard. Nancy Avery thought it was unusual. She bought the piece in 1983 from Doyle.

"It was quite a treat to be able to buy something directly from the artist," said Avery, who was an art history major in college. A friend who lived on St. Helena was familiar with Doyle's work and took Avery to see the folk artist during a visit.

Pierre McGowan traded a pickup truckload of tin and wood for a commissioned painting from Doyle. McGowan wanted a portrait done of his father, who was known to the area as the "Gullah Mailman," the first mail carrier on St. Helena.

"The first one he didn't like for some reason, so he painted another one. And I got two paintings out of it," McGowan said.

They were the last two paintings Doyle would ever do, according to McGowan. Both will be on display at ARTworks.

Penn Center, where Doyle went to school, is loaning 17 of their 20 Doyle pieces to the show.

"I feel Doyle is the most important artist coming from St. Helena," said Victoria Smalls, Penn's history and culture director.

"His pieces chronicled the history of the Sea Islands as well as the history of our nation," Smalls said. "He should be known not only as a folk artist but as an American artist. He is that important."

Tickets for the Sam Doyle Celebration on Sept. 22 are $25. Price includes entry and food from a "Wellcome Table" buffet, based on one of Doyle's paintings by the same name.

"He deliberately misspelled 'welcome,'" Humphrey said, "because he wanted everyone to be well."

In his typical offbeat way, Doyle was making a statement. Or giving a history lesson.

Follow Erin Shaw at twitter.com/IPBG_ErinShaw.

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