Night vision

It’s an experience we’ve all had: Waking up exhausted after a night of vivid, forceful dreaming, the colors and events and feelings so strong you know your dreams want something from you.

You just don’t know what.

Minnie Evans suffered from restless, dream-driven nights well into middle age. Then, two days before Good Friday in 1935, she received an otherworldly directive, couched as a question: “Why don’t you draw or die?” So she picked up a pencil and filled the nearest surface at hand, a scrap of a paper bag she’d been using as a grocery list.

Years later, Evans described what doing that first drawing felt like: “Never in my life have I ever did anything or worked like I worked on that picture. Something had my hand. … Thing turning around — just going, not knowing what I was doing, prespiration [sic] pouring off me. … So I just worked on that picture. I didn’t know what it looked like or what it was … and when I finished that, I cannot tell nobody the load that got off me.”

The result was a symmetrical crowd of crude, penciled symbols and images, filling the paper from edge to edge, like urgent, indecipherable hieroglyphics. Evans titled the drawing “My Very First.”

The next day, she created “My Second.”

Five years passed before she picked up a pencil to draw again. But when she did, her nighttime dreams and daylight visions poured out of her onto whatever surface she could find: an old window shade, the cardboard cover of a worn-out book, scraps of bag. With colored pencils, Crayola crayons (her favorites), and — in later years — oil paints, Evans chronicled the world of her dreams and her days, a paradise of rich color and rainbows; winged beasts; butterflies; serene, disembodied eyes; floating human heads that seem to morph into flowers and trees; oceans; sunrises and sunsets. All, she believed, were gifts from God.

Evans drew and painted obsessively. Her mother warned her, “Minnie, it’s affecting your mind.” Her husband begged her, “Minnie, why?” But as she transferred her dreams to paper (or whatever else was available), they finally gave her some peace. And eventually, they brought her fame as one of this country’s premier “visionary” artists.

The term “visionary art” is often used as a synonym for “outsider art” — the work of untrained artists. But visionary artists such as Evans are driven by forces they don’t understand, compelled to create in a spiritual frenzy. “Those things got on me. If I didn’t paint, seem like I would die,” she said about her art. The efforts of such artists tends to share many elements, which can be clearly seen in Evans’ works. The images are usually flat, two-dimensional, but rich in color and texture. Surfaces are crowded — every space is filled with intricate detail. And where trained artists often work within a canon of common symbols and images, the symbolism in visionary work is mysterious — often even to the artist. Evans said: “I can’t ask myself any questions about this whatever. So I just do … what it comes to me to do.”

Evans’ life is also similar to those of other visionary artists in that she grew up outside — far outside — the realm of art galleries, museums and intellectuals. A direct descendant of slaves, Evans was born in the bitterly segregated South — Pender County, N.C. (way down east) — in 1892. At the time of her birth, her mother, Ella Jones, was 13. When Minnie was just a few months old, Ella took her to Wilmington, N.C., to live with her grandmother and great-grandmother. Plagued by dreams and visions, Evans was always different from other children. She stopped going to school after the sixth grade and joined her mother picking oysters to sell door-to-door. At the age of 16, she married Julius Caesar Evans, who worked as a coachman for a rich landowner, Pembroke Jones. Eventually, Minnie went to work as a domestic for Jones’ wife, Sadie. When Jones died, Sadie remarried, and she and her husband moved to nearby Airlie Estates, where Minnie continued to work for them as a maid.

When Sadie’s second husband died, she decided to turn Airlie Estates into Airlie Gardens, a lush human-made Eden with more than a million azalea bushes and thousands of camellias. And when Sadie herself died (in 1943), the garden’s new owner, Albert Corbett, installed Minnie as Airlie’s gatekeeper. For the next 27 years, she worked from March through September — dawn to dusk, seven days a week — collecting admission fees from visitors to the garden. And of course, she continued to draw and paint, incorporating the imagery of Airlie Gardens into her dreamscapes. Thousands of visitors passed by Evans’ gatehouse each year, and many of them took notice of her art work. She began selling her paintings and drawings for 50 cents each — more than half of what she earned in a day.

Soon, people started coming to Airlie just to see the artist who worked there.

Evans’ reputation grew, and in 1961 the Artist’s Gallery in Wilmington (now the St. John’s Museum of Art) held an exhibit of her work. In 1962, free-lance photographer Nina Howell Starr met Evans, and from then on, the photographer subordinated her own career to that of her fellow artist. Starr arranged exhibits of Evans’ work in New York, Vermont and London. In 1969, Newsweek reviewed one of Evans’ New York exhibits, calling her a “beautiful dreamer” who was “breathtakingly gifted.”

Evans continued to draw and color and paint until just a few years before her death in 1987, at age 95. Her work is now celebrated as some of the best outsider art of the 20th century. The St. John’s Museum, which has continued to feature her work, put together a traveling exhibit last year that’s now on loan to the Asheville Art Museum.

Confronted with Evans’ vivid paintings and drawings arranged in simple, straight lines on neutral white walls, the viewer must confront the nagging question that always seems to lurk in museum corridors: Why is this art?

The pictures are compelling, certainly, and beautiful. But they are also familiar, childlike. What they seem to reveal most clearly is that, although an artist might create her own work, the work’s viewers (in this case, those who first passed through Minnie Evans’ gatehouse at Airlie Gardens) also, in a sense, create the art — by naming it as such. For naming, after all, is itself an act of creation, another way of framing something.

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