WILMINGTON — Her visions were illuminating, foretelling, otherworldly — and they came to life for the world to see through vivid color and design.
The work of Minnie Evans has been revered in Wilmington over the last century and fundamental to the foundation of the local arts community. It continues to be celebrated annually at Cameron Art Museum as part of Evans’ birthday celebration.
This year marks 130. On Sunday, CAM will host a day dedicated to Evans’ impact and remembrance through a multimedia immersive experience: film, live performance and of course her visual artwork all can be explored.
“Minnie Evans will always stand as one of America’s greatest artists,” CAM’s executive director Anne Brenna said. “Always the most profound truth we see every day is the reaction from children when they encounter her drawings and paintings. They dive in, feel such recognition with her and overflow with questions. That to our mind is most telling about the power and truth and knowledge to continually gain by viewing her work.”
CAM has received numerous gifts of Evans’ artworks throughout the years. A decade ago, David Peters built a replica of Evans’ last gatehouse at Airlie Gardens, from where she took admission from guests and became revered as its gatekeeper until retiring in 1974. Brennan captured pictures of it in the mid-’90s to help with its replication.
The installation, open for free, is still on CAM’s property for visitors to stand in the small space and get a glimpse into Evans’ life as a working artist and from her point of view.
“The motion of their bodies activates a recording of Minnie telling her story,” Brennan said.
Born in 1892 in Long Creek in Pender County, Evans’ lineage traces back to Trinidad, as her great-grandmother was transported to the states and sold in the South as a slave. At 2 months old, Evans and her 13-year-old mother moved in with Grandmother Mary Croom Jones at Wrightsville Sound.
Evans, whose faith steered many visions she eventually painted, attended St. Matthew African Methodist Episcopal Church. She dropped out of school in sixth grade and began selling shellfish door-to-door to help the family make ends meet. By 16, she married Julius Caesar Evans, had three sons, and the family worked for Pembroke Jones and lived on his hunting estate (today, the area is known as Landfall).
When Jones died and left Airlie Estate to his wife, Sarah, the Evans family moved onto the land and continued working for the widow, even after she remarried. Eventually, Sarah turned the 67 acres into Airlie Gardens.
Erected on the grounds in 2004, The Bottle Chapel by Wilmington artist Virginia Wright-Frierson pays homage to Evans’ vast talent and legacy. Evans didn’t begin painting until her 40s, after her Grandmother Jones died in 1935. The artist indicated throughout her life, her art was inspired by psychic and religious visions. Yet, the natural wonderment of the Cape Fear is also apparent and represented.
Lush foliage, butterflies, bumblebees, peacock feathers and hives appear swirled around Evans’ signature eyes and faces. The figures have been considered prophets, others appear as animals, serpents and mythical creatures. Evans’ drew landscapes and supernatural scenes, described as both surrealistic and Southern folk.
Her mandala-style illustrations — created in pencil, graphite, oils and wax — vividly embrace color and showcase symmetry, while also maintaining a loose fluidity.
“Green is God’s theme color,” Evans said in the 1984 documentary, “The Angel That Stands By Me.” She was speaking about a hue prominent in all of her drawings.
Local filmmaker Linda Royal of By the Brook Productions saw the documentary for the first time in 2018 at CAM. She attended with her friend, Dr. Liz Penton, an anthropology professor at UNCW, also trained in arts and culture.
Royal was moved and yet intrigued by the amount of research that has emerged 40 years since the release of “The Angel That Stands By Me,” but also Evans’ growth in popularity. The 25-minute long doc features interviews and scenes into Evans’ daily life, even as she visited St. John’s Museum of Art, which eventually grew into CAM.
“With today’s production values, and maybe a longer length film, the story could be told in a way that I think would really bring a much greater awareness to her and her artwork that she deserves,” Royal said.
So she set out to make “Minnie Evans: Visionary Artist,” a film that will take a deep dive into the art itself.
“At the time of Minnie’s death in 1987, we cataloged well over 500 works,” Brennan said about the museum. “She was so generous in giving away her work, during the 27 years she worked as a gatekeeper at Airlie all the way through her residence late in life at the Grotgen Nursing Home.”
There is no full count of how much art was created throughout Evans’ lifetime; some days she would draw several pieces a day, according to Royal.
“Minnie’s work continues to appear at auction, primarily from sale of work privately held,” Brennan said.
CAM owns the largest public collection. Though, Evans has reached audiences far and wide, as her art has been featured in the Met, Smithsonian Institution, American Folk Art Museum, Whitney Museum of American Art, Ogden Museum of Southern Art, and High Museum of Art, to name a few.
One of Brennan’s favorites at CAM is a landscape, “Mythological, Made at Airlie Gardens,” which strays from Evans’ characteristic symmetrical illustrations. Among others, it will be on display in CAM’s Brown Wing, along with never-before exhibited letters from Evans to one of her patrons, and the “Admission $1.00” sign, which hung outside the window of her gatehouse.
“On the back, you can see daubs of paint where she was reviewing a color or wiping excess oil from her brush as she worked,” Brennan said.
“Mythological” features Greek gods, a pink Pegasus and centaur, with angels, butterfly beings, a large beaked swan, and a figure Brennan suspects is Spartan queen Leda, covered in royal blue peacock feathers, greeted by a green devil with red horns, yet whose “smile and posture is too perishingly sweet to cause any fear.”
“Minnie was so full of love, and lived her life filled with such wonder, of course her visions of both paradise and of underworlds are as benign as they are breathtaking,” Brennan explained.
The executive director is featured in Royal’s film. As well, Royal tapped her friend Penton as academic advisor, with Olympia Stone co-producing and Annette Freeman acting as consulting producer.
Penton studies cave painting sites in Europe and teaches about non-Western art and philosophies. She is currently writing about Evans’ in “Minnie Evans (1892-1987): A Beautiful Light,” researched in conjunction with CAM.
It was Penton who essentially introduced Royal to Evans. On Royal’s wedding day, the bride was slipping into her gown and looking at a bounty of colorful artwork in Penton’s home.
“She had so many Evans’ drawings and paintings,” Royal remembered. “It was just amazing.”
Two dated back to 1980 and 1981, from late in Evans’ career, measuring 20-inches-by-16-inches — “large by the artist’s standards,” Penton said.
Penton noted Evans’ work remains untitled, though sometimes descriptors appear in parentheses to delineate between them.
A green monster is showcased in both, one paired with a white dove, the other a winged white horse. The work is flanked by birds, vegetation, peering eyes, and smiling faces, in an “explosion of fanciful forms wheeling in the pink-orange sky,” as “flower-like shapes seem to spin the air and emerge out of telescoping forms,” Penton described.
In “The Angel That Stands By Me,” doc crews captured Nina Starr, a photographer, folk art specialist and art historian who also acted as the artist’s agent, reuniting and hugging Evans.
“There is a wonderful collection of interviews that were done by Nina,” Royal said. “She taped many hours of conversations that are now archived at the Smithsonian Museum of Art.”
These tapes are being used to bring Evans’ voice to the film, discussing her visions and dreams.
“Even though her voice was certainly present in the first documentary, I think these are stories that were not told and parts of her life that were not revealed in that first film,” Royal said.
She referenced the “invasion painting” hanging in the Ackland Art Museum in Chapel Hill. Royal said it was done after a 1944 visit with Madame Tula, who directed Evans to create three drawings.
“Madame Tula then says until you draw that picture, the invasion in Europe is not going to happen,” Royal recalled of her research. “Minnie is having a difficult day and she sleeps practically all day, but when she wakes up, she said, ‘Something spoke to me like this: Why don’t you draw or die?’ And she does. And then she said, ‘Never in my life have I ever worked like I worked on that picture. Something had my hand — perspiration was pouring off of me.”
That was May 1944; on June 6, the Invasion of Normandy took place.
Some credit Evans’ “draw or die” quote to her first painting Easter weekend after the artist’s grandmother passed. Royal said through extensive research and consultations with art historians, her film crew believes this timeline is more viable.
“There is this mystery of Minnie that, of course, is fascinating — and that’s something we want to bring to the film,” Royal said.
Another story that Royal has enjoyed learning about is the day Evans went to a theater in downtown Wilmington to watch a Fu Manchu film. She walked into one theater but was “feeling out of sorts,” Royal described, and so she wandered to another.
“As she’s looking at the screen, apparently with these ancient tablets as part of the story, she realized they are the same symbols and markings — an ancient sort of language she never learned — that she incorporated into some of her drawings and was astonished by this.”
Royal also interviews family members and friends of Evans, such as grandson Norris Evans, who talks about the family history. In “The Angel That Stands By Me,” her sons speak about how proud they are of their mother while visiting with her on her front porch. However, Evans’ husband and mother exhibited concern during the early years of her craft, especially over the amount of time Evans dedicated to the canvas.
“They knew she was drawing and painting all the time, but they certainly never knew how famous she would be,” Royal said. “But when she started, she couldn’t stop. She would forget to eat or make dinner. And I hate to use this word, but he even thought she was ‘crazy,’ as shown in a lot of research. But he went to their minister and once they understood Minnie felt this was a gift from God, they realized, too, her gift and supported her.”
So far Royal and her team have completed about 15 minutes of footage, which will be shown at CAM Sunday during the 130th Minnie Evans birthday celebration. It will include interviews with Evans’ grandson and Brennan, as well as a closer look into some of Evans’ paintings.
“She commands viewing with our most open heart,” Brennan said. “That is a reckoning. From her vantage point as domestic worker and later as gatekeeper at a lush Southern estate, is a narrative about our very selves transformed by her deeply religious belief, her love and her spirit.”
The end goal is to have the documentary completed by 2024, but Royal is estimating it will take a $200,000 budget to finish the project. So far, they have raised $15,000 through various campaigns. It will cover reenactments, to be used as B roll, as well as the music score and how the film will be distributed after its release.
“Like a lot of independent filmmakers, I’ve been doing two things at once — trying to raise money and trying to make things happen as I get the money. So I do some shooting and then keep fundraising.”
It will be Royal’s sixth film. She came into art documentary later in life.
“I turned 40, and I had been an art director and majored in art, but I was looking for something different to do,” she said, also noting she wanted a way to blend her passion for art and activism.
So she received her certificate of documentary film studies from Duke in 2005. Ever since, she has released “STRAWS,” focusing on the single-use plastic pollution problem plaguing the ocean and waterways to inspire environmental policy change. “Love Lived on Death Row” centers on domestic violence and the death penalty.
All of her work has appeared in the local Cucalorus Film Festival, and have been shown in hundreds of schools for educational purposes. With “Minnie Evans: Visionary Artist,” the end-goal is to start an impact campaign, Royal said.
She aims for it be shown in museums in tandem with art exhibitions even, but also envisions it to serve as supplement to arts curricula, whether through Communities in Schools or arts academies.
“There’s a lot of different models, but we definitely want an outreach youth campaign,” she said. “Minnie was an amazing woman and artist — and what an interesting story. I want the documentary film to bring more attention to her brilliant artwork.”
The Minnie Evans Birthday Celebration takes place at CAM Sunday, Dec. 11, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., with an ornament-making workshop inspired by Evans’ art from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Joyce Grear will perform “Miss Minnie” live, with story written by Ben Steelman, bringing to life Evans’ impact from more than a hundred years ago; there is a $10 suggested donation, with registration is here.
The screening of “Minnie Evans: Visionary Artist” takes place at 2 p.m. (learn more and donate to the film here).
Admission is $10 to $12 to CAM, located at 3201 S. 17th St.
[Ed. note: The article has been updated to correct Olympia Stone’s name from Olivia. Port City Daily regrets the error.]
Have comments or tips? Email email@example.com