High Museum of Art

Atlanta, GA




Local Heroes: Paintings and Sculpture by Sam Doyle


A collection of portraits painted in house-paint on old roofing tin, works on paper, and sculpture are bring featured in "Local Heroes: Paintings and Sculpture by Sam Doyle" at the High Museum of Art Folk Art and Photography Galleries in downtown Atlanta. The exhibition includes approximately 70 original works created by self-taught artist Sam Doyle (1906-1985) and is on view through October 14, 2000. (left: Welcome Table, n.d., house paint on roofing tin, 26 1/4 x 43 1/2 inches, High Museum of Art, T. Marshall Hahn Jr. Collection)

As the first major museum exhibition of Doyle's work, this show will explore the full range of his talents as an artist and as a storyteller of Gullah and African American identity and oral history.

Sam Doyle lived his entire life near the small community of Frogmore on St. Helena Island, South Carolina. After his wife and three children left the island to live in New York, he devoted the last fifteen years of his life to preserving and commemorating the rich cultural heritage of his Gullah community.

He preferred to paint in enamel and acrylic on cast-off pieces of roofing metal and created sculpture, using tar on roots and branches. He also worked with plywood, burned logs, floorboards, nails, bottlecaps, refrigerator doors, porcelain sinks, metal medicine cabinets, bird feathers, and photographs. His paintings, drawings and sculpture include images of himself as "Onk Sam" (1978), local personalities on the island such as "Miss Luckie Food Stamp" (1984), and enslaved ancestors whose stories he had heard as a boy. Doyle also depicted leaders and heroes from popular culture such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Abraham Lincoln, Ray Charles and Elvis Presley. (left: Untitled (Crab Man), 1975, paint and pencil on paper, 16 x 13 1/4 inches, High Museum of Art, T. Marshall Hahn Jr. Collection)

A group of painted portraits, known as the "First Blacks" series was Doyle's celebration of the first African Americans on the island to attain professional titles within the local St. Helena community during post-Civil War years. "First Doctor Y.B.," (1970s) for instance, honored Dr. York Bailey, the island's first medical doctor. Other examples of these "firsts" are "John Chisholm, St. Helena's First Embalmer" (ca. 1980), "First Black Cleaner" (n.d.), and "St. Helena's First Black Midwife" (early 1980s). Doyle painted portraits of the local root doctors who offered traditional healing still practiced today and memorialized "haints," or spirits of low-country lore.

"This exhibition explores Sam Doyle's creative project as an uninhibited act of gathering up and celebrating the diaspora that defined his own life story," says Lynne Spriggs, curator of folk art at the High. "Doyle's artistic expression reflects the direct influence of a particular place, his community and extended family, Western Christianity, radio, television, local folklore and visitors from around the world, as well as the legacies of Native America and 500 years of slavery and resistance " (left: First Doctor Y. B., 1970s, house paint on roofing tin,48 1/8 x 25 3/8 inches, High Museum of Art, T. Marshall Hahn Jr. Collection)

Sam Doyle is best known for his painted portraits and his ability to preserve local folklore through his works of art. From the 1970s through 1985 one could pass by his home and marvel at the display in his "Nationwide Outdoor Art Gallery," as he referred to his yard. In 1982, Doyle was included in a groundbreaking exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art "Black Folk Art in America: 1930-1980." Art dealers, collectors, and artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat became interested in his work, and many came to see this newly "discovered" self-taught artist at his outdoor gallery.

"Local Heroes: Paintings and Sculpture by Sam Doyle" brings works by this significant artist to a new level of recognition and appreciation. Doyle's creations describe one small Gullah community as part of a larger African American identity and legacy. Works featured in this exhibition have come from the High's permanent collection, as well as private and institutional collections from around the country.

"Local Heroes: Paintings and Sculpture by Sam Doyle," curated by Lynne Spriggs, is organized by the High Museum of Art, Atlanta. The exhibition is made possible by the National Endowment for the Arts. Additional support is provided by Mr. and Mrs. Philip A. Rhodes and The Judith Rothschild Foundation.

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