When Minnie Evans was a small child, she found no rest. During the hours in which most children slept peacefully, she was plagued by vivid and persistent dreams that weren't content to fade into the ether with the dawn, as stars did next to the brighter sun. They stayed as strong in her memory as any incident in wakeful reality. In grade school, when a teacher faulted her for her tiredness, Evans gave the simple explanation: Prophets had kept her up all night, beleaguering her with their demands and making her visit a nearby cemetery. For the young Evans, fragments of the world within that existed when her eyes were shut prevailed in her perspective of the world without.
An older Evans finally encountered a way to reconcile the overlap between these two distinct worlds through drawings and paintings that not only permitted her the means to make sense of the infiltration of actuality by imagination, but allowed others to gain access to her private universe. The Dream World of Minnie Evans, running at the North Carolina Central University Art Museum through April 18, gives Triangle residents the opportunity to become more familiar with this universe's range.
Curated by Kenneth G. Rodgers, the museum's director, Dream World gathers work from 1940 to 1978, culled from the collections of the North Carolina Museum of Art, the North Carolina Museum of History, the Louise Wells Cameron Art Museum (Wilmington), the Ackland Art Museum and the Weatherspoon Art Museum (UNC-Greensboro.) Two pieces, the 1963 oil "Jesus Christ" and "The Covenant," a primarily crayon construction from 1978, belong to NCCU, and Rodgers is quick to state that they'd be happy to own more.
Evans' discovery of the means to deliver her nighttime visions into the light of day wasn't precipitated by a class in painting. While it's unclear what specifically triggered her compulsion to set picture to paper, it's known that her first drawing was made after she had just finished writing out a grocery list; she began to invent shapes on the page until it was full.
Skill was refined through practice, not study. After the initial burst of creation, she continued to sketch, draw and paint until the end of her life, motivated not by the desire to see her works on gallery walls or get a good review in Art In America, but because it was what she needed to do. In her own words, she was "making some funny things." She sold works here and there from her post at Airlie Gardens, where she worked as a gatekeeper, and had an exhibition in 1961, at the age of 69. In 1962, she met Florida State University student Nina Howell Starr, who became a close friend, organizing exhibitions, promoting work and essentially acquainting the art world to Evans' world. Evans had yet to take a course.
Outsider art (or visionary, or self-taught--semantics become unwieldy when trying to categorize those who don't procure the vocabulary to qualify their work in a university setting) is not necessarily a main concern of NCCU's museum, and this is the first self-taught show that Rodgers has assembled. But an artist's lack of formal instruction is by no means a deterrent to him, and the commitment to showcasing African-American art brings Evans, and consequently outsider art, to the forefront.
"She's integral to everything we do," he says, citing Evans' work as a key part of American and African-American art history. Were there any room for doubt of her status in the fine arts community, the impetus for the solo exhibition nullifies it. "What sparked my interest was the return of a major piece we own ('Jesus Christ') which had been gone for some time to many venues. When it came back, I asked myself why it had been gone so long, and decided that she needed a reintroduction in this area."
Outsider art can be a risky choice. It's not deemed valid in all circles, perhaps because the term has become so overused of late, claimed by anyone who's had the time to carve eyeballs into a stump that looks like a bear--and call it their work. All those front yards full of outsider art make it a tad suspect. There are those who subconsciously consider the monthly installment of the student loan the artist pays, a just barometer of their worth. And often it's just not what we're used to. "People in general devalue that which they don't understand," Rodgers explains. "Understanding visionary art requires a departure from ordinary thinking."
But the museum was ready and willing to make the trip and to take their patronage along. While Rodgers describes those who have input into the museum's displays (the Board of Directors, including an exhibitions committee) as "generally accepting of the proposals I put forth," he states that their support for this particular project was enthusiastic and universal. "They were [in favor] across the board," he says. "In fact, they suggested that we do more [shows featuring self-taught artists.]"
When considered, "outsider"--while now a fairly standard idiom for pigeonholing those who've learned their craft solely through their own devices--can be an ugly little word. It hints at not only a want of standing among other artists, but a distance from the viewer, and the state of being beyond normal, conventional society. One visualizes some loopy and unwashed hermit holed up in his tin shack on a secluded mountaintop, with only his paintbrushes, a family of goats, and the voices in his head for company. Strange then that Evans, who spent most of her life raising a family and earning an income as a gatekeeper, falls under the heading, while someone like Salvador Dali does not--although he once prepared for a special date with wife-to-be Gala by shaving his armpits until they bled profusely, because that's what he believed would be most attractive to her. (Apparently he thought better of it and put on a shirt before she arrived.)
The most effective means of measuring an artist, though, isn't a thorough examination of their resume, a perusal of their degrees, an inspection of their awards, or an agreement with their mating rituals. It's a scrutiny of their work, for, ultimately, what they produce is of more importance than any of their studies or trophies. The drawings and paintings that now line the walls of NCCU's gallery prove once again that Evans' gift is undeniable.
This concrete evidence of her visions transports us into the nocturnal world she successfully sought to make visible in waking life. The exhibition charts her progress and development over four decades, beginning with intricate ink depictions brimming with sensuous curves and succinct angles, then blossoming into the flamboyant and balanced crayon images that constitute the bulk of this collection, and occasionally giving way to painted canvas populated with angels and insects.
Evans concentrated on expressions of symmetry, calling to mind elaborate Persian carpets, ink blots pressed with the hues of a hundred vibrant wells, or, to use Evans' own organic inspirations, flawless butterflies and delicate blooms. The figures are saintlike and gentle, each countenance calming: The trio in "Untitled" ("Three Women with Twelve Stars") project sheer mirth and grace. Color is joyous and sunlit; riotously exuberant--"Untitled" ("Flora with Two Lions") explodes off the page. Serene faces peek out from behind crisp leaves, curling tendrils and velvety petals, so lushly executed that the scent of magnolia and rose seems to accompany the image. Creatures of fancy entice, and birdsong peals sharp and clear.
The geography of her dream world is filled with Edens and heavens, principally free of the threat of hell that dominates much visionary work. There's the rare jaunt into less welcoming territory--in the 1944 work "Invasion," colors grow muddy, airplanes menace and faces beneath are twisted by fear, a state that survives nowhere else in the environs recorded here. The serpent that smiles a toothy grin in "Untitled" ("Snake and Crest-Shaped Design") isn't coiled to strike, and bears no tempting fruit to lure the viewer into damnation. Evans' god is a benevolent one, and the gates to his paradise stand open. Evans has provided an entryway, to lead us with her, inside.