Most of us have a collection of images in our subconscious. Sometimes these images make their way into the written word. Some never leave the subconscious.
For artist Sonja Griffin Evans, those images eventually made it onto canvas to teach and inspire others, no matter how long it took them to get there.
Born and raised in Beaufort, Evans came to painting well into adulthood.
After a battle with depression left her hospitalized in 2005, she was given paint and a canvas during her time at Beaufort Memorial. The first of many artistic interpretations came in the form of a tree by the water with the sky overhead. With the revelation that she had painted her own image of The Lord’s Prayer, an artist was born.
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She soon left the world of banking that been her career and moved to Pensacola, Fla. Picking up the pieces of her life involved meeting with a new therapist there. When asked if she had any hobbies, she replied that she liked to paint. Encouraged to bring in some of her work during their next session, Evans found her first paying customer in her therapist.
Evans was encouraged to get in touch with a local art gallery in Pensacola.
Some of her pieces there were eventually seen by a local art professor.
When he likened her work to Michelangelo, she remembers thinking “this is what I was meant to do.” She knew that selling work would allow her to make a living from it, but also felt it was merely a “provision to fulfill the vision God gave me.”
As an artist, Evans sees her painting subjects as characters, sometimes with poetry or monologues attached to them.
“The way a painting manifests is almost like someone sitting on your shoulder telling you what to draw,” she said.
Eventually that manifestation found her depicting scenes of Gullah history and folklore. She had grown up in Burton and found her artwork incorporating Lowcountry scenes. Often these images came from childhood memories of watching her uncles farm their land and work independently.
After exhibiting work at the Penn Center Heritage Days, she returned to Pensacola in 2014. As she drove down, she listened to Al Green sing “Call Me (Come Back Home)” on her car’s CD player.
She soon took Al’s advice, returning to her native area and working out of a studio on Hilton Head Island.
But a distant land was calling to her.
During her time in Florida, she became acquainted with a Parisian author and magazine writer who was so enamored with her work that he invited her to his home country.
Next month she heads to France, where her artwork will be exhibited in town halls in Angers, Nantes and Cholet. The featured piece will be “American Gullah,” a takeoff on Grant Wood’s 1930 “American Gothic.”
Trading a pitchfork for a garden hoe, the work features two faceless African-Americans standing in a rice field.
“It’s simple but there’s lots of symbolism,” said Evans. “I try to give my interpretation of my culture but also stay true to its identity.”
The couple in “American Gullah” are identifiable because they could be anyone you know, the hardworking folks you see in Burton and St. Helena and all spots in between. It captures that identity and history that has made Evans a major contributor in the development of the Forgotten Communities Art Program and a director of the Gullah Arts Initiative for the Pan African American Cultural Heritage Initiative. Now her contributions are getting an international audience, and she’s not done yet.
Another image from her childhood in Beaufort exists in her memory, that of playing checkers with her grandfather time and time again until she could beat him at the game he taught her.
“He wanted to teach me that my generation could be even better than his,” she said.
Through her artwork, she’s leaving something indelible to which the next generation can aspire.
Ryan Copeland is a Beaufort native. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.