“I have no imagination. I never plan a drawing, they just happen. In a dream it was shown to me what I have to do, of paintings. The whole entire horizon all the way across the whole earth was out together like this with pictures. All over my yard, up all the sides of trees and everywhere were pictures.” — Minnie Evans quoted in Nina Howell Starr, “The Lost World of Minnie Evans,” The Bennington Review vol. 111, no. 2 (Summer 1969): 41.
The paintings and drawings of Minnie Evans depict scenes from the artist’s private dream world. But even to the artist herself, this dream world was not entirely comprehensible. Evans was born in 1890, the only child of Joseph and Ella Kelley, farmers who lived in rural Pender County, North Carolina, near Wilmington. Evans’ parents moved to Wilmington during her early childhood, and she attended school there through the sixth grade. She married Julius Evans of Wilmington and had three sons.
Evans traced her background to a maternal ancestor who was brought to the United States from Trinidad as a slave. There are elements in Evans’ art that invite comparison to Caribbean folk art forms, though the artist only once traveled outside her native North Carolina. The bright colors and floral motifs that appear in her paintings were most likely inspired by trees and flowers, especially azaleas, at Airlie Gardens in Wilmington, where Evans worked as the gatekeeper for many years.
“My whole life has been dreams … sometimes day visions … they would take advantage of me,” Evans once said. She also recalled that in 1944 a fortune teller informed her that she was “wrapped completely in color,” and that she had “something of all nations.”
The dream world of Minnie Evans received its earliest visual manifestations on Good Friday 1935 when she completed two small pen-and-ink drawings on paper dominated by concentric circles and semi-circles against a background of unidentifiable linear motifs. Evans always placed a good deal of significance on these early drawings.
Evans’ first paintings were done entirely in wax crayons and resemble an exercise employing every color in a gigantic box of Crayolas. The colors included greens shaded from light to deep, purples from mauve to pink, rose, and royal, and full ranges of reds, blues, and yellows with a sparing use of black and white. Evans’ complex designs reveal an unaccountable presence of Caribbean, East Indian, Chinese, and Western elements in color and subject matter. Her own explanation of her work was that “this art that I have put out has come from the nations I suppose might have been destroyed before the flood.… No one knows anything about them, but God has given it to me to bring [them] back into the world.”
The central motif in many of Evans’ paintings is a human face surrounded by curvilinear and spiral plant and animal forms and eyes merging with foliate patterns. She equated eyes with the omniscience of God and the concept of the eye as the window of the soul. The figures in her designs are sometimes portraits of ancient wise men and women who peopled her visions,ancestral visitors from some spiritual order, or angels, demons, and chimerical creatures. Evans’ paintings are essentially religious in inspiration, and represent a world in which God, man, and nature are synonymous; God is frequently represented as a winged figure with a wide multicolored collar and rainbow halo. He is surrounded by a proliferation of butterflies, eyes, trees, plants, and floral forms in a garden paradise of brilliant colors contained within a cartouche-like frame of curvilinear rhythms.
The paintings and colored drawings of Minnie Evans are surrealistic without intellectualism or self-consciousness. They are the works of a visionary who equated God with nature, color with His divine presence, and dreams and visions with reality. The world as revealed through Evans’ psychic revelations is a sacred province of complex visionary forms, angels, demons, hybrid plants, animals, and the all-seeing eye of God.
“Something told me to draw or die,” Evans stated. “It was shown to me what I should do.” The fact that her paintings “just happened to her” confirms that they are manifestations of an order of things unknown except to the artist herself. The art of Minnie Evans is a refreshing phenomenon—a lost world revealed through a subconscious that even she did not understand. Evans stated, “When I get through with them [the paintings] I have to look at them like everybody else. They are just as strange to me as they are to anybody else.”
Evans died in Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1987.
Most of Evans’ paintings are similar yet no two are identical. Reflecting the many colors of the flowers of the botanical gardens where she worked, her paintings shimmer with the complexity of Byzantine mosaics. And like Byzantine mosaics, Evans’ works embody a common religious intent and express the omnipotence of God.
Regenia A. Perry Free within Ourselves: African-American Artists in the Collection of the National Museum of American Art (Washington, D.C.: National Museum of American Art in Association with Pomegranate Art Books, 1992)