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Sam Doyle: Through his mind and eye

By Carolyn Males

Featured Artist

A Dream – 1970s, paint on metal medicine cabinet, High Museum of Art, Atlanta, museum purchase, and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation from the William S. Arnett Collection, 2017.52. © Sam Doyle

In a 1982 photo, Sam Doyle is sitting in his yard on what looks like a rusty old iron bed headboard or perhaps an old bike rack — given Doyle’s recycling tendencies, it could have been either or something else for that matter. Clad in checked pants, shirt, cardigan and felt hat, he’s looking straight at photographer Roger Manley’s camera, a half smile on his face. 

Behind him in his outdoor gallery, his paintings of St. Helena islanders sit propped up and tilted at crazy angles against pine trees and each other — a community filtered and amplified through his imagination. His canvases? Scrap pieces of wood and corrugated tin, tree bark, old paint cans, a refrigerator door, whatever — the flat figures on them rendered in house paint. Fishermen, barbers, church elders, loose ladies, voodoo doctors mingle with Black heroes like Martin Luther King and baseball’s Jackie Robinson. They lean against portraits of local firsts like St. Helena’s first midwife, Sinder Ladson, as well as John, the first Black embalmer. 

Each piece sports its subject’s identity in large, irregular letters. “Ike Plow Man” (a farmer with his team of mules), “Dr. Buz” (the local voodoo doctor with his conch shell “telephone” to his ear), and who can forget “Rocking Mary” barefoot and shirtless in her red and white polka-dot cap and pantaloons, a pipe tucked between her crimson lips?

Not only was Doyle a visual griot or storyteller of his present day Frogmore community, but he also reached back into stories from the island’s past generations of Gullah families. He depicted enslaved plantation workers farming beneath the threat of the whip, legends like Lincoln speaking to Black islanders beneath a live oak, and haints like Whooping Boy (a child beheaded by his master, his body buried to watch over a treasure.) Every seven years, the boy’s spirit would start whooping in the dark of night, a sound the self-taught artist swore he’d once heard. 

Forty or fifty years ago, if you turned into the St. Helena road (today’s Sam Doyle Drive), you would have spotted the flagpole and “St. Helena Out Door Art Gallery” sign.

Sam Doyle is shown at his Wallace Plantation Gallery on St. Helena Island in 1982. ©Roger Manley

For a couple of dollars you could have bought any one of the colorful paintings scattered around his yard or nailed up on his clapboard house. You might even have caught him leaning over “a canvas” (his easel being the ground), moving his brush in wide strokes on a scrap of metal roofing. For a while it was mostly curious locals who came by but then, after his 1982 national debut at the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s Black Folk Art in America: 1930-1980 show in Washington, D.C., collectors started coming from far and wide. He would soon amend his sign, adding “Nation Wide” to it and setting up a Visitors Board where he’d letter in names of hometowns and countries of folks stopping by.

Lincoln in Frogmore – ca. 1960, house paint on wood panel, High Museum of Art, Atlanta, gift of Gordon W. Bailey in honor of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 2012.130. © Sam Doyle

Up until that storied event, he’d never left Beaufort County. Born in 1906 in the Wallace community, a former plantation on St. Helena, he attended Penn School until ninth grade. He liked to draw and one of his teachers encouraged him to pursue that path. Instead he took a job as a store clerk. Then once the bridge linking St. Helena to Beaufort was built in 1927, he crossed the water to work as a porter. In the early 1930s, he would marry Maude Brown with whom he had three children. A decade or so later the Doyles would move to his family’s old property on St. Helena. Here, while he took a job at the Parris Island Marine base laundry, Maude and the kids ran a café-store out of a small building next to their home. Soon he began decorating its exterior with a few of his unique artworks. Then as their rocky marriage crumbled, he moved into a shack behind the main house and Maude eventually left island life for New York. 

Ike – 1982, by Sam Doyle (American, 1906-1985). Acrylic on metal siding, 44 x 58 1/2 inches. Image courtesy of Gibbes Museum of Art

After retiring from the laundry, Doyle’s urge to create art grew stronger. He was now a part-time caretaker at the Chapel of Ease, where he scavenged a few chunks of fallen tabby of the 18th century church and begun painting images on them. Meanwhile branches and roots gathered from his yard became the material for his animal carvings. He would later tell a reporter that his artistic inspiration came from “the mind and the eye.” “I’d be in my bed and I’d just say I want to paint something like people I’ve known a long time and stories I’ve been told.” For the latter he reached back into tales he’d heard as a kid, often putting a humorous spin on them. Raised a Baptist, he also painted religious-themed works that he displayed away from the gaze of his secular cast of characters. For Doyle, his outdoor gallery served as a “museum” to educate people about Black history and instill local pride.

Bull Dager – Sam Doyle, Bull Dager, ca. 1980, paint on sheet metal, Smithsonian American Art Museum, The Margaret Z. Robson Collection, Gift of John E. and Douglas O. Robson, 2016.38.26

In 1985, when Sam Doyle died while on an errand to pick up art supplies, the Lowcountry and the world lost an original voice. Today his work is in the Penn Center’s York W. Bailey Museum as well as in larger collections including the High Museum of Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The American Folk Art Museum, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Gibbes Museum of Art.

First Doctor – Y.B., 1970-1980, paint on roofing tin, High Museum of Art, Atlanta, T. Marshall Hahn Collection, 1997.63. © Sam Doyle)

“I first saw Sam’s stuff when I was doing community service work getting water to St. Helena. We had to sign people up to receive water, and the man who was in charge of the project said, “Did y’all go by that NAACP man’s house? The man with all the Black paintings around his yard?” That’s when I first saw his paintings. When I became executive director of the Penn Center in 1980, I got to know Sam, and later on he asked me to be his salesman. We had a list of his paintings and their prices that folklorist Regenia Perry had set up. People would come by Sam’s yard, select a painting, and then come pay us and we’d give Sam the money. Before that he’d been pretty much giving away his stuff for four or five dollars. They’d walk off with a painting that today is now worth thousands. So Sam and I became pretty close, and he put a sign in his yard that said ‘Emory Campbell Saleman.’”

— Emory Campbell, community leader and former executive director of Penn Center

“I started in at Penn School in 1949 and sat next to his son, Samuel Jr., in seventh grade. Our school bus drove right by Sam Doyle’s house every day, and he had work leaning up against the fence like an outdoor gallery. We laughed at it back then. You’d say “I hope no one gives me one of those!” Today you’d say, ‘Boy I wish I could afford one.’”

— Mary Mack, artist and former owner of Red Piano Too Art Gallery

“He was making his own museum of St Helena’s unique history. He thought of doing this all on his own and he had fun and he had fun with pictures and words. Along with oral traditions like haints and ghost stories he’d heard, he painted real people like doctors and farmers. But he sometimes painted real people who lived on the edges of the community, outsiders like “goodtime girls” as he called them.” 

— Louanne LaRoche, artist and former owner of Red Piano and Red Piano Too galleries

“Sam would take a painting nail it to a fence line or a tree or a building to attract people. And so sometimes if you wanted to buy it, he had to get the crowbar to take out the nails. Then it was yours. Sometimes he’d even paint ‘sold’ on the painting in red or another color. Some people would say, ‘Why did he do that?’ But that gave it provenance. You’d have this amazing piece by an amazing artist and it’s like he’s signing the painting again with the word ‘sold.’”

— Victoria Smalls, artist and Gullah Geechee Cultural Preservationist