Sam Doyle fashioned his uniquely-styled portraits and tributes with evangelical enthusiasm, blending ancestral Gullah lore and his devout Baptist faith into a rich multi-cultural impasto.
As a youth in the early 20th Century, Doyle attended Penn School, which was established in 1862 to provide educational and vocational skills to newly liberated slaves near the Sea Islands off South Carolina. It was during his formative years at Penn that he first received encouragement for his artistry and learned the value of history. Abiding by his culture’s tradition, he chose to remain on the island of his birth, St. Helena, despite encouragement to move north and pursue studies in art. He worked in the nearby town of Beaufort and raised three children.
Following his retirement in the late 1960s, Doyle fully committed to painting the history of his beloved Gullah community. His work also dealt with the theme of African-American advancement, depicting prominent public figures like Jackie Robinson and Ray Charles as well as local Gullah luminaries –some real and some imagined– such as Food Stamp, He/She, Mr. Fool, Mrs. Fool, Ramblin’ Rose, Rockin’ Mary, and root doctors Crow, Buzzard, and Bug. Over the next decade, his museum-like exhibition on St. Helena Island evolved into the “St. Helena Out Door Art Gallery.”
Doyle’s artwork brought him much acclaim, particularly after his inclusion in the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s seminal 1982 exhibition “Black Folk Art in America 1930–1980.” Curated by Jane Livingston, the Washington, D.C. event was Doyle’s only excursion away from his home state. He had the sublime pleasure of seeing his artworks formally presented and shaking the hand of First Lady Nancy Reagan.
Aficionados traveled from around the world to view Doyle’s outdoor history lesson. He commemorated many of their visits by painting their hometowns or countries of origin on a 4ft x 8ft plywood panel. He also amended his gallery sign, adding “Nation Wide” parenthetically to emphasize its broad appeal. As evidenced by his “Visitors” sign, Doyle’s influence is far and wide. The late Neo-expressionist Jean-Michel Basquiat once traded some of his own artworks to a gallery owner for a few of Doyle’s and noted contemporary master Ed Ruscha paid posthumous tribute to the artist with his painting “Where Are You Going, Man? (For Sam Doyle), 1985.” The work now resides in the collection of Eli Broad. Examples of Doyle’s expressive work are held in important private and museum collections worldwide and have been selected for many exhibitions.
© Gordon W. Bailey
Raw Vision article by Gordon W. Bailey (Issue #61)