Artist Profile – Sam Doyle

1906–1985, lived and worked on St. Helena Island, South Carolina

(detail) Sam Doyle / Gulf 7¢, / c. 1982–85 / house paint on wood / 34 x 40 in. / Collection Gordon W. Bailey

Sam Doyle fashioned his uniquely-styled personal portraits and tributes with evangelical enthusiasm, blending ancestral Gullah lore and his devout Baptist faith into a rich multicultural impasto.

As a youth, Doyle attended Penn School, established in 1862 to provide educational and vocational skills to newly liberated slaves. It was during his formative years at Penn that he first received encouragement for his artistry and learned the value of history.

By 1927, bridges linked St. Helena to nearby Beaufort. Doyle, like many of his peers, found employment there. During his off-island residency he married and fathered three children. In 1943, heeding Gullah tradition, he moved his family to St. Helena. The family settled into a modest two-story house nestled on a few acres of ancestral farmland. Doyle commuted to his job in Beaufort and his wife did the best she could to cope with rural life.

Though the demands of full-time employment and the parenting of three children left little time for creative pursuits, he still made things for his family: clever root sculptures, adorned utilitarian objects, drawings, and paintings.

After nearly twenty years, Doyle’s marriage dissolved. He moved into a separate structure on the same property and lived there, quite uncomfortably, for several years until his teenage children graduated from high school and then moved north with their mother.

Following his retirement in the late 1960s, Doyle fully committed to painting the history of his beloved Gullah community and more generally African-American advancement. Over the next decade his museum-like exhibition evolved into the “St. Helena Out Door Art Gallery” where haints and saints rubbed rusty shoulders and shared the boughs of Spanish moss laden oak trees with other celebrated figures, both famous and infamous.

Visitors encountered public personas such as Abraham Lincoln, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Joe Louis, Ray Charles, Jackie Robinson, and Elvis Presley and local luminaries like Food Stamp, He/She, Mr. Fool, Mrs. Fool, Ramblin’ Rose, Rockin’ Mary, and root doctors Crow, Buzzard, Eagle, Hawk, and Bug. Serial projects such as “First” (achievements) and “Penn” (school) presented pictorial histories to young residents and mainlanders alike.

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 4 x 8 ft. plywood panel and he 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

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Artist’s Work