Minnie Evans: Far from traditional

“Three faces in floral design” Minnie Evans, 1967

Minnie Eva Jones was born on December 12th, 1892 in a log cabin in Long Creek, North Carolina. Now, just to give you a little perspective, in the 2020 census, the unincorporated community of Long Creek had a population 277. Minnie’s mother, Ella Jones, was 14 years old when she gave birth to Minnie. A child herself. Minnie’s father, George Moore, was also very young – though I couldn’t find a source that specified exactly how young… But he wasn’t really up for the responsibility and abandoned his little family.

Ella, Minnie’s mother, worked as a domestic at the time and when her infant was 2 months old, Ella took Minnie to live with her mother, Mary Jones, in Wilmington, North Carolina. It’s Mary, Minnie’s grandmother who Minnie would call, “Mama.” Her biological mother, Ella, became more of a sister figure to her. Minnie’s great-grandmother, Rachel, who lived with them until Minnie was 7, traced their ancestry back to Rachel’s great-grandmother, Moni, who’d been brought to North Carolina from Trinidad as a slave.

Minnie began school at five years old and attended until she was in the sixth grade – leaving school to help earn money for her family. But while she was in school, she loved studying history and Greek mythology. She said she would learn things and forget things in school – perhaps like the rest of us. She said, “I did not love anything but history, which I would never forget. I would love to read about the Gods. I would always love to watch the moon and stars.”

As a child Minnie experienced very intense vivid dreams that disturbed her sleep and made her prone to waking dreams and visions by day. And she often heard voices. She is quoted as saying that she couldn’t recall a night she slept without having dreams. Her waking dreams, however, created recurring hallucinatory experiences that led to a confused sense of reality. According to author and art historian, Gylbert Coker, there were times when Minnie could barely distinguish between dreams and visions, as well as between dreams and wakeful experiences. This continued throughout her life, though with varying intensities. The waking dreams were frequently images of prophets and religious figures, real and mythical animals, flowers, plants and faces. She wasn’t completely out of touch though. She was very aware that her experiences were unusual and was cautious about letting others know about this phenomenon.

When she left school, she worked as, what was called, a “Sounder” – gathering shellfish from the sound in Wrightsville, North Carolina which she sold door to door.

If you don’t know what a sound is, it’s a smaller body of water typically connected to a larger sea or ocean.

Minnie met and married, 19-year-old, Julius Caesar Evans, four days after her own 16th birthday. But Minnie was not of legal marrying age, so she wrote that she was 18 on the marriage license. The couple would later joke about this throughout their marriage. Minnie gave birth to three sons – David Barnes, Elisha Dyer and George Sheldon – after the New York millionaires who visited the Pembroke estate.

Minnie’s husband, Julius, worked as the valet for Pembroke Jones, a wealthy financier and socialite – while Minnie, employed on the estate as well, work as a domestic. After the death of Pembroke Jones, his widow remarried in the year, 1919 and moved with her new husband, Henry Walters (son of the founder of the Walter Art Gallery in Baltimore), to an estate called, Airlie where the Evans continued working for the family. The 150 acres were developed into expansive Gardens and opened to the public in 1943, five years after the death of Mrs. Walters. Minnie worked as the gatekeeper, collecting admission for visitors until she retired in 1974.

She didn’t start drawing until she was 43 when a voice told her she must “draw or die.” On Good Friday, 1935, Minnie unknowingly embarked on her new passion, and created her first drawings – two small pictogram-like works. Both are now in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American art.

In 1940, she began a series of pencil and crayon drawings, most of them measured to be about 7”x 5.”  She carried them in her purse for many years. These works she created acted as talismans for her. She said that she kept them physically with her, because they relieved her from the emotional tension of her visions. These abstracts worked as protection from her visions while they did not specifically address them.  

Nathan Kernan, in his essay titled, “Aspects of Minnie Evans,” stated, “Evans turned to art as a means of exercising the crippling power of her dreams, somewhat in the way the still more desperate Antonin Artaud drew his gris-gris of 1943 to 1944, which had a curative, protective, offensive function against the demons assailing him.”

In the event you don’t know what a gris-gris is, it is a charm or an amulet worn as protection against evil or to encourage good fortune. You’ll especially find this term used among those who practice Voodoo. However, many other spiritual practices around the world have their own term for this type of object. Think of the Italian Mano Figa or the ancient Grecian Evil Eye.

Antonin Artaud’s gris-gris were described by one art historian as drawn hieroglyphs made up of crosses and other geometric lines and arranged in a repetitive symmetry. This work was compared to a description of Minnie’s early drawings from 1935 and the early 1940s and what Evans called the ancient writing that occasionally appears in her work.

I need to stop here though. I’m not sure why these art historians are comparing Minnie’s work with Artaud’s work, since Minnie’s work came first. Artaud was a White French, writer, visual artist, dramatist and poet and though I was able to view many of his drawings, I’ve not yet found anything that resembled Minnie’s early work online. Now, to be fair, I didn’t dig super hard because this was never about Artaud, but I found this comparison of her to him slightly disturbing. My only guess is that these art historians may have seen Minnie’s condition as a mental illness and compared her to Artaud who was admitted, multiple times to mental institutions.

Back to Minnie Evans…

She often said that the meaning of her work was a mystery to her. She couldn’t tell you what any of it meant and sometimes referred to the force that drove her to draw as an engine.

Her work was an automatic process, seemingly directed by outside forces. Evans once stated, ” I have no imagination. I never plan a drawing. They just happen.”

There was a 5-year gap between her first two works and her next drawing. She stumbled across her two dated drawings one day. On one she had written, “My very first.” And on the other, it said, “My second.” She had found them stuck in the pages of a magazine that she was about to toss. It was like a sign…

Minnie began drawing compulsively after that, and her family started freaking out a little and worried that she might be losing it. But they got used to it. Eventually. She gave her pictures to people who admired her work and eventually hung them up near the gatehouse at the gardens where she worked, and started selling her drawings for 50 cents each. I did a rough calculation and found that at that price, the value would be a little over $10 in today’s money.

Minnie was a big fan of symmetry. A lot of her works are vertical in format, kept within the confines of a whimsical border. She gravitated to images of buds about to flower, cocoons and butterfly shapes. It’s been suggested that possibly, that oriental rugs that Minnie probably saw and cleaned in her employer’s homes might have inspired these compositions. In fact, one photo from the early 40’s illustrating a sculptural form standing in a small room includes, in the foreground, a rug whose pattern closely resembles one of Minnie’s early drawings.

In the 50’s and 60’s, Minnie’s art began including more representational images and less abstracted ones. These were depictions of her dreams or visions with imaginative creatures and sacred buildings located in otherworldly landscapes. The dreams she illustrated were rendered by her love of ancient mythology and her favorite book of the Bible. The Book of Revelation. Of the Book of Revelation, she said   “I love to read it and I love to think about it… the New Jerusalem.”

Minnie is probably best-known for her art that combines symmetrical abstraction with figurative elements. A good example might be the work I described at the top of this episode. These works portray fantastical worlds – that of serenity and usually female or of ambiguous gendered figures, rarely male – surrounded by colorful flora, fauna and abstract figures.

I’m sure it’s not a coincidence that color bursts into her work around the same time she starts working as a gatekeeper at the Airlie Gardens. A garden stuffed with flowers, leaves, birds and butterflies – just like her work. Minnie once said, “I think sometime, once upon a time, some nation what you call idolized butterflies.”

Here’s a quote about color by Minnie. She said, “And more than a dozen times I’ve seen the most beautifulest cities in the sky. Just beautiful cities of rainbow colors. Now we dreams, we talk of heaven, we think everything is going to be white. But I believe we’re going to have the beautiful rainbow colors.”

In 1961, she had her first one-person exhibition at the Artists’ Gallery in Wilmington, North Carolina, now the St John’s Museum. In the following year, she met Nina Howell Starr, a graduate photography student at the University of Florida. Nina was in her 50s at the time of their meeting and became Minnie’s pro bono, defacto, agent, selling Minnie’s work from Nina’s New York apartment. Nina encouraged and worked with Minnie from 1962 until 1984, and traveled to see Minnie frequently and was instrumental in showing Minnie’s work in New York galleries.

Minnie’s first New York City exhibition, was at the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany in 1966, followed by other modest exhibitions in 1966 and 1969.

According to the exhibition catalog, Black Folk Artists; Minnie Evans and Bill Traylor, from the African American Museum, “The first Minnie Evans exhibitions were in the 1960s – 1961, Wilmington, North Carolina and in 1966, New York. Evans came to New York on that occasion and visited the Metropolitan Museum. This inspired her to enlarge the scale of her work and to redo earlier pieces in a larger format.”

This is corroborated by Nathan Kernan in his essay, “Aspects of Minnie Evans.” In it, he states, “After she returned home influenced by the larger sizes of some of the work she had seen in the museum, Evans began to make larger works by cutting up existing drawings gluing them to board or canvas board and expanding them with the addition of new paintings.”

One of Minnie’s pieces in the Petulo Collection bears the dates 1960, 1963 and 1966 and shows seams where the work has been cut and a triangular center section inserted. Most likely, this is one of the paintings she expanded for scale.

Author, Mary E. Lyons, recalls how Nina, Minnie’s champion and agent, suggested that Minnie go back and sign and date earlier works. She said “Minnie agreed, though she had trouble estimating dates for pictures she had completed 10 years earlier. As a result, many dates are incorrect. Not all of the signatures are Minnie’s either – in the early ’60s, Minnie asked her granddaughter to sign her pictures for her.”

A small exhibition of Minnie”s work was held at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1975. It was guest curated by Minnie’s own, Nina Starr. This was followed by retrospectives organized by the North Carolina Museum of Art in 1986 and the Wellington B. Gray Gallery at East Carolina University, North Carolina, in 1993. That show traveled to the Museum of American Folk Art in New York City in 1994. The work of Minnie Evans continues to be exhibited in modern art museums as a great contribution to 20th century art.

Minnie was also honored on May 14th 1994, when it was declared Minnie Evans day in Greenville, North Carolina.

Minnie’s husband, Julius Evans, died back in 1956. Ella Jones Kelly, Minnie’s mother, who lived with her from 1954 on, died in 1981 at the age of 102. Minnie moved into a nursing home in 1982 and on December 16th 1987, she died at the age of 95.

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