Sam Doyle died in 1985. His paintings are now in museums and prominent collections. Some local people are lucky to have memories of the folk artist and his St. Helena Out Door Art Gallery, and the 1982 exhibition that established his reputation: Black Folk Art in America: 1930-1980 at the Corcoran Museum of Art in Washington D.C. But, here in Beaufort this fall -- in the same community where Doyle was born in 1906 and derived his inspirations -- the rest of us will be able to behold his work in person, first at ARTworks and then at Penn Center.
In July, I got to peruse the collection. I had been studying the artist's career online and in "Haints and Saints," a definitive essay written by Gordon W. Bailey. I was ready to see originals. The texture, form and scale of original artworks are the key, like on a map, to appreciating an artist. Texture is the layers of paint from Doyle reworking the pieces while they lived out in his yard. Form is the vintage refrigerator door Doyle once chose to tote in and paint on. Scale is how the artist combined the size of his canvas (or scrap of tin roof) with the image he wanted to portray. The only limits are materials and vision, that's all.
One painting that has stuck with me since my visit to Penn is "Brother in Time of Need." It is a scene, unlike Doyle's signature full-length portraits. In the foreground, two soldiers crouch, arms wrapped around each other, their cheeks pressed together because a tank turret and explosions are so close it looks like the tank might run over them. The clutch of the soldiers is a visible reaction to the munitions exploding over their heads, the shells bursting as hard as the soldiers are crouching.
Doyle's sophistication as an artist is, in part, in his ability to capture body language. His sophistication as a human being was in his own bravery through the images he chose to paint.
Victoria Smalls, who is Penn's new director of history and culture, gave me the tour, which was doubly fitting since there in the collection, arrayed for now in a small office, was Doyle's rather formal portrait of Robert Smalls (if you are not familiar with his story of bravery, then consider this exhibit a starter for your history studies). Doyle was interested in achievement. He painted an extensive series: St. Helena's first black midwife (his grandmother, Sinder Ladson), Dr. York W. Bailey, heavyweight boxers, Jesus ascending, a Gullah netmaker, Ray Charles, the first football game on St. Helena Island, enslaved people who finally experienced freedom.
"He never shied away from hot button topics, and his sociopolitical pieces are some of his most stirring works," said Bailey, who has the largest collection of Doyle's paintings. "Doyle was completely immersed in his milieu and quite aware of the influences of popular culture. If you caught Doyle's keen eye by doing something well, often or eccentrically, your likeness would soon stand in his yard."
The centerpiece image for the 2013 Sam Doyle Celebration is the Penn Drummer. Painted on corrugated tin roofing, the subject is a happy young man in a green suit with elbows up making a happy noise. By looking at Sam Doyle's original art in person, we are keeping the beat going, pulling along the artist who liked to quip, "That's natural, man," into our own pop culture where he belongs in the Lowcountry pantheon of Daise, Conroy, Glover and Green.
The Sam Doyle Celebration launches with a ticketed reception at ARTworks on Sept. 22. Claudette Humphrey, one of ARTworks' organizers, is planning a program of paintings from private collections, personal accounts of the artist, and a "Wellcome Table" buffet, inspired by one of Doyle's paintings. The full-color booklet version of "Haints and Saints" will be for sale. The ARTworks exhibition runs through Oct. 6. On Oct. 10, Penn will share their collection on their historic campus, as well as a show and sale of student art (the call for student art is posted at www.artworksinbeaufort.org).
Don't miss any of it.
Lisa Annelouise Rentz is the transmedia publicity leader for ARTworks, the community arts center in Beaufort, and the author of the "Pencils, Words & Kids" app. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.