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American Gullah

Artist and storyteller Sonja Griffin Evans brings passion and determination to her work.

Story by Carolyn Males + Photography by Lloyd Wainscott

“My country, ‘tis of thee,” a voice sings out from across the art gallery at the Coastal Discovery Museum. It’s unexpected, yet perfectly fitting. The mezzo-soprano, you see, belongs to artist Sonja Griffin Evans, who painted the story that surrounds us here in her recent “American Gullah” exhibit. However, she explains, the song “belongs” to people in her.

“Da First Decoration Day,” is an acrylic painting depicting May 1, 1865, when thousands of black Charleston residents gathered to honor those who died for their freedom.

“That day,” the artist explains, “was the first time they could truly feel that this was their country, too.” Stretching her arms to embrace the body of her work, she continues, “And this is the story of the unsung pioneers of America.”

Nowhere is that more apparent than in her signature show piece, “American Gullah,” where a woman and man stand side by side in a pose, reminiscent of Grant Wood’s “American Gothic.” Here, Griffin Evans has taken Wood’s classic painting of a 19th century white Midwestern farm couple, posed with a pitchfork in front of a white farmhouse, and turned it on end to prod us to think more deeply about other roots in our country’s founding. In Griffin Evans’s version, a dark-skinned woman holds a rice basket, and the man holds a hoe. The words “Rice Coast” are emblazoned on her bodice. The legend “Carolina Gold,” on a pocket of the man’s overalls refers to their brutal kidnapping from the rice coast of Africa and the lucrative fruits of their enforced labor in the Carolinas.

The entire “American Gullah” series encompasses a larger saga depicting the challenges and emotions African-Americans experienced on the road to Gullah freedom.

The latest series by Sonja Griffin Evans, which features images of little girls with cornrow and powder-puff hair, carries the message, “It’s OK to be naturally you.”

“The Door of No Return” is a grim symbol of the last door the captives would walk through on African soil before being chained on a slave ship.

“You Don’ Own Me” shows a strong defiant woman who understands that her intrinsic worth has nothing to do with the price posted on the slave market board.

The glorious “My Freedom Dance” features seven jubilant freed women with arms outstretched under bright blue skies. The latter, commissioned for a Mitchelville project, hangs in the the Westin Hilton Head Resort and Spa.

The Beaufort-born artist traveled an unusual road to arrive at this creative phase of her life. After stints in the U.S. Army and retail, she took a job with the Black Chamber of Commerce in Pensacola, Fla., working on its Forgotten Communities program. One day, spotting a boarded-up building in an area where the only business was a burger joint, she came up with the idea of revitalizing the area by opening an arts venue. Gumbo Gallery, a showcase for local African-American artists, was born and that part of town took on new life with a street market and other small businesses.

Griffin Evans’s inspirational attitude carries over into her latest series, “Naturally Me Kidz.” Inspired by her young niece’s self acceptance, the brightly painted images of little girls of color with cornrow and powder-puff hair, carry the message, “It’s OK to be naturally you.”

Today, the artist paints at local cultural heritage sites, often walking the grounds where the spirits that inhabit her paintings once trod. In one of the resulting pieces “Gullah Dream Catcher,” Griffin Evans invented a sweetgrass basket to catch dreams and interpret them.

And her own dreams? She’d like to develop and stage a live theater production of the musical “American Gullah.” Given her passion and determination, it’s a vision that may be on its way to reality soon.