Sam Doyle's funky artwork comes full circle on St. Helena Island

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comOctober 5, 2013 

Sam Doyle "Penn Drummer" 37.5 x 24 inches, house paint on tin, from the collection of Gordon W. Bailey.

    What: See Penn's Sam Doyle Collection and a Student Art Show and Sale during Sam Doyle Night at Penn Center
    When: 5 to 8 p.m. Thursday
    Tickets: $25, with proceeds going to Penn Center and the Arts Council of Beaufort, Port Royal and Sea Island. Student artists, art teachers and their principals get in free.
    Information: 843-838-2432;

To Sam Doyle, the secluded Gullah culture of St. Helena Island was a blank canvas.

Except that for most of his life, he didn't have a canvas.

The self-taught artist whose works could now fetch $30,000 used house paint on what he could find -- corrugated roof tin, plywood, a medicine cabinet, refrigerator door, even paint cans.

His works were perched all around his yard, along with a flag pole, cats and chickens. He called it his "Outdoor World-Wide-International Gallery."

Doyle had local supporters, but plenty more thought his better talents were exhibited at his day job in the laundry at the Marine Corps base on Parris Island.

But before Doyle died in 1985, his artwork was collected and shown by Andy Warhol. And he would shake hands with first lady Nancy Reagan after a fretful flight with John Trask Jr. to Washington, D.C., where Doyle was part of the "Black Folk Art in America: 1930-1980" exhibit at the Corcoran Museum of Art.

He is in major collections all over the world. Retrospectives of Doyle's work have been done at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and the gallery of the late Pat Hearn in New York City. Big names in the art world who have purchased Doyle's work include Jean-Michel Basquiat, Fay Gold and Regina A. Perry.

But this week, his work is coming home to St. Helena Island. A show that has been at the ARTworks gallery in Beaufort since Sept. 22 will move to the Penn Center on Thursday.

One thing about Sam Doyle Night would please him more than anything in Paris or New York.

The show will also feature the art of local students.


Doyle was born in 1906 into a world those students will never know. He lived his life on Wallace Plantation, where his grandparents were enslaved.

In 1930 on St. Helena Island, 24 out of every 25 people were African-American, according to "The Gullah People and their African Heritage" by William S. Pollitzer.

Doyle's colorful figures and words painted on found objects tell a story of the Gullah people in ways that will never be seen again. He took great pride in his unusual world.

Local heroes he painted included Robert Smalls. He mixed photographs with paint on wood to show his three brothers, Frank, Fortune and John, who all died serving their country in the world wars.

He documented a number of St. Helena firsts -- the first black doctor, first black midwife, first black embalmer, first black dry cleaner, first football game and first passenger line to get people from Frogmore to Savannah. He painted local legends including Rubin Fripp, the "Net Maker" who walked to town wearing a coat and tie, his brief case filled with materials to make cast nets. He would stop along the way to sew the nets. He also wrote addition and subtraction problems, all in Roman numerals.

Doyle painted national heroes such as Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson and Ray Charles.

He painted the workings of the Penn Normal Agricultural and Industrial School, which Doyle attended, and the local ways of farming and fishing.

He was a Baptist who painted Nativity scenes, the Annunciation, Crucifixion and Ascension.

And he recorded Gullah folklore, superstitions and characters -- the root doctors, loose women, ghosts and spirits.

A 1989 book published in Japan and edited by Doyle collector and friend Louanne LaRoche of Bluffton combines his works of art with a brief description of what he told her about it. One showed a "Dr. Boles" who "relieved a patient of high blood pressure by sucking blood from the forehead through a conch shell." The "Buzut-Ro Bot" painting illustrates "an island threat that if you find yourself in an argument you might become a rowboat for the buzzards."


Doyle's retrospective at the High Museum was appropriately called "Local Heroes."

His own bravery might be called heroic. He had the courage to put his world out there for all to see when many, even within the Gullah culture, did not see beauty in it or want it shown.

"It was his greatest desire that the history of the island not be forgotten," said LaRoche, an artist who formerly owned The Red Piano gallery on Hilton Head Island and Red Piano Too on St. Helena.

"It's exciting that children are part of the event at Penn," LaRoche said. "Nothing would please him more. I mean nothing."

Victoria Smalls of the Penn Center staff said Beaufort High School students have done paintings on found objects, including driftwood.

Lady's Island Elementary School students have recycled cereal boxes and shoe boxes to serve as their canvases. Shanklin Elementary students have painted on flattened aluminum soda cans.

And the St. Helena Elementary students have done self-portraits, just as Sam Doyle did. On the back they have written a story telling what would make them a local hero.

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at

Related content: Exhibits to celebrate Lowcountry folk artist Sam Doyle

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