Painting Dreams: Minnie Evans, Visionary Artist

Mary E. Lyons

Minnie Evans was forty-three years old when she began to draw pictures based on her strange dreams and waking visions: giant birds, biblical figures, and other fantastic images. This is her story of a woman who pursued her art despite the restrictions placed on her as an African American-woman.

Photo Source

Read more: http://luminanews.com/article.asp?aid=7039&iid=240&sud=42


There are moments, like right now, where I can feel the entire world passing through me. It’s not that I’m porous, per se. More like I can feel everything, like there’s a storm of affect around me and I’m stuck right at the middle. Conduit. Conscript. Conductor (the electrical kind, as there’s no music yet, though the word ‘ampere’ comes to mind as a kind of deceptive, false medium between these nodal points, between shock and shake and wail, between the amphitheater and amplification and the French philosopher-mathematician who built this connection for me before I was born). 

Minnie Evans started this whole thing. Watching the video, I found myself overwhelmed. So many divergent, weighty feelings. Gratitude, awe, confusion, familiarity, joy. I spend so much time thinking about “the work”, you know? I worry sometimes that people think I don’t, but I do. At shows, on the road, in the crib. The project is always with me, informing how I write and what I perform and where I am taking the strange assemblage that I’ve tried to build here. Yesterday, I stumbled upon the terms “ethnobotany” and “ethnobiology” and actually flipped out. Though a day later I’m not sure if these terms locate exactly what I’m tracking, they are certainly close. I know that there is something, or maybe an ensemble of somethings,  here in the archive that is calling to me. Something about plants, animals, Black religion, Afrofuturism, disability, imagination. The flash points are everywhere. What I’m working through is how to put them together. How to assemble them into a constellation that’s legible. “Black Nature Writing” is a term that works for me most days, but I’m not sure it gets at precisely what I *think* I am seeing, which is a body of texts that is trying to put such pressure on the genre of nature writing, pushing its boundaries so far out to the margins, that I’m not sure if it fits anymore. If it even wants to fit.

But maybe that’s the work of blackness in nature writing, “anarranging every line” as Moten might say. Maybe there isn’t some other term, some other frame, connecting Minnie Evans and George Washington Carver and Douglass and Morrison and Walker and Octavia and Chesnutt demanding to be addressed by its proper name. 

And, even if there is, is it really the name that I’m after? Or is it something about what these figures share? A spectacular secret? That Nature is both not “out there” (reading Timothy Morton has changed my life) but also kinda sorta is? This is what Lauren Olamina from Butler's Parable of the Sower gives us, right? A charge. To take root among the stars. To think conviviality in interplanetary terms. A radical immanence that is also elsewhere. 


Women’s Outsider Art, Part IX:

Minnie Evans

Evans was born in 1892 in South Carolina. She attended school through the sixth grade, dropping out in 1903 because of the family’s economic hardship, finding a job as selling shellfish door to door. In 1908 she quit to marry, and worked as a full-time mother for eight years before becoming a paid domestic worker. Following a dream revelation, Evans began to draw and paint at the age of 43, creating her first pieces of artwork on a scrap of paper bag. Five years later she decided to really dedicate herself to recording her dreams through art. She painted her early works on US Coast guard stationery and later worked with more precision, using ink, graphite, wax crayon, watercolour and oil on canvas, board and paper. She died in 1987, and is now recognized as one of the most important visionary folk artist of the 20th century.

–from Wikipedia

Minnie Evans


“I have never remembered sleeping without [dreaming].” The words of Minnie Evans from her 1998 exhibition at Luise Ross Gallery, New York

Minnie Eva Jones was born on December 12, 1892 in a cabin in Long Creek, North Carolina. Her young, poor mother was fourteen years old, working as a domestic servant. At the age of only two months, Minnie was taken to live with her grandmother in Wilmington. She was essentially raised by her grandmother, and considered her biological mother to be more of a sister-figure. Her father, George Moore, was also very young when she was born and abandoned the small family. When she was a teenager, Minnie found out about his death, but not until a year after the fact.

Minnie’s family history is full of strong women. Passed down verbally from one generation to the next, their story recounts the experiences of their ancestor, Moni, an African woman who was a slave in Trinidad. She eventually ended up in Wilmington, North Carolina, where relatives still live today.

Minnie began school at the age of five and attended until she was in the sixth grade, leaving school to help earn money for her family. She had loved studying history, mythology, and biblical stories which were part of her deep Baptist faith.

As a child, she often heard voices and had waking dreams and visions. She could not recall a night she slept without having dreams, and during the daytime, recurring hallucinatory experiences lead to a confused sense of reality. According to author Gylber Coker, “there were times when Evans could barely distinguish between dreams and visions, as well as between dreams and wakeful experience.”(1) This continued throughout her life, though the intensity of her visions varied. These waking dreams were often images of prophets and religious figures, real and mythical animals, flowers, plants and faces. She was quite conscious of this unusual aspect of her personality, and cautious about letting other people become aware of this phenomenon.

After leaving school, she worked as a “sounder”, going door-to-door selling shellfish gathered from the waters off of the North Carolina coast. She met Julius Ceasar Evans, and married her nineteen-year-old groom four days after her own sixteenth birthday. Not being of legal age, she wrote her age as eighteen on the marriage license, which became something the couple often joked about during their long marriage through which they bore three sons.

Her husband worked as the valet for Pembroke Jones, a wealthy landowner, and Minnie went into domestic service on the estate as well. After the death of Jones, his widow remarried and moved with her new husband to the estate called Airlie where the Evans’ continued working for the family. The 150 acres were developed into an expanse of gardens and opened to the public in 1949. Minnie Evans became the gatekeeper, collecting admission from visitors, and eventually retired from her post in 1974.

Evans didn’t start drawing until she was 43 years old, when a voice told her she must “draw or die”. On Good Friday, 1935, she did her first drawing, and the next day a second one followed. Both are now in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art. Her work was an automatic process, seemingly directed by outside forces. Evans stated: “I have no imagination. I never plan a drawing. They just happen.”(2)

It would be five years before she would create another picture. She found her two drawings, both dated and one bearing the inscription ‘my very first’ and the other ‘my second’, stuck in the pages of a magazine that she was about to dispose of by burning. This chance finding seemed fortuitous and signaled the beginning of her fervent art making.

As she began drawing compulsively, her family became concerned that she was losing her mind, but grew accustomed to her endeavors. She gave her pictures to people who admired her work, and eventually hung them up near the gatehouse at the gardens where she worked, selling them for fifty cents each, a sum equal to half her daily wages.

Eventually, Evans’ work came to the attention of Nina Howell Starr, a graduate photography student in her forties who was married to a professor of a Florida university. Starr worked with Evans from 1962 until 1984, becoming her de facto agent, traveling to see Minnie frequently and showing her work to New York galleries.

With the encouragement and assistance of her agent and friend, Evans work was widely exhibited. According to the exhibition catalogue Black Folk Artists: Minnie Evans and Bill Traylor from the African American Museum,

“The first Minnie Evans exhibitions were in the 1960s: 1961, Wilmington, North Carolina; and in 1966, New York. Evans came to New York on that occasion, and visited the Metropolitan Museum. This inspired her to enlarge the scale of her work, and to redo earlier pieces in a larger format.”

This is corroborated by Nathan Kernan in his essay, Aspects of Minnie Evans:

“After she retuned home, influenced by the larger sizes of some of the works she had seen in the museum, Evans began to make larger works by cutting up existing drawings, gluing them to board or canvas-board, and expanding them with the addition of new paintings.”(3)

An Evans piece in the Petullo Collection bears the dates 1960, 1963, 1966, and shows seams where the board had been cut and a triangular center section inserted. Presumably, this is one of the paintings she reworked when experimenting with larger picture sizes.

Author Mary E. Lyons tells how Starr suggested that Minnie go back and sign and date earlier works, “Minnie agreed, though she had trouble estimating dates for pictures she had completed ten years earlier. As a result, many dates are incorrect. Not all of the signatures are Minnie’s either – in the early 60s, Minnie asked her granddaughter to sign her pictures for her.”(4)

A retrospective exhibition of her work was mounted in 1975 at the Whitney Museum. Evans was also honored when May 14, 1994 was declared “Minnie Evans Day” in Greenville, North Carolina.

Minnie continued drawing for most of her life. She moved into a nursing home in 1982, and died there on December 16, 1987 at the age of 95.