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Sam Doyle

American, 20th century
Born 1906, St. Helena Island, South Carolina; died 1985


Sam Doyle was born in South Carolina on Saint Helena Island where African cultural influences thrived. As a youth, he attended the island’s Penn School, established in 1862 to provide education and vocational training to newly liberated freedmen, until family hardship forced his withdrawal. Doyle first made a painting on cast-off, tin roofing in 1944. He placed the painting in the yard of his clapboard house. Over time, he added more works to his museum-like display; most were portraits of people and events important to his community, others paid tribute to African American advancement. Following retirement in the late 1960s, imbued with a profound appreciation of history by his elders, and drawing strength from his devout faith, Doyle fully committed to painting the history of his unique Gullah culture and more generally African American advancement. His history lesson evolved into the St. Helena Out Door Art Gallery and his impassioned artworks attracted the attention of Jane Livingston, the Associate Director and Chief Curator at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. She invited Doyle to participate in Black Folk Art in America: 1930-1980. The seminal event traveled and introduced the islander’s artwork to a much broader audience.

Using discarded materials — primarily metal roofing, plywood, and house paint – Doyle created a stirring oeuvre of expressive portraits which included two important series: “First” (achievement) and “Penn” (school). The creolized Gullah language was Doyle’s first and his creatively-spelled, painted words further enhance his works and inform the viewer. The artist summed up momentous events with poetic simplicity and had a genius for distilling the essence of personality. His paintings are so deftly executed that they often achieve iconic status.

Aficionados traveled from around the world to view Doyle’s outdoor exhibition. He commemorated many of their visits by painting their hometowns or countries of origin on a 4ft x 8ft plywood panel. As evidenced by his “Visitors” sign, Doyle’s influence is far and wide. The late Jean-Michel Basquiat collected Doyle’s works and noted contemporary master Ed Ruscha paid posthumous tribute to the artist with his painting "Where Are You Going, Man? (For Sam Doyle), 1985” – now in the collection of Eli Broad – and has cited Doyle’s influence, once commenting: “When I look at his pictures alarm bells go off, warning me of their power.”

© Gordon W. Bailey


Selected Exhibitions

2014, Sam Doyle: The Mind’s Eye - Works from the Gordon W. Bailey Collection; Los Angeles County Museum of Art

2013, Soul Stirring - African American Self-Taught Artists from the South; California African American Museum

2013, Great and Mighty Things: Outsider Art from the Sheldon and Jill Bonovitz Collection; Philadelphia Museum of Art

2010, The Museum of Everything; Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli, Turin

2004, Coming Home: Self-Taught Artists, The Bible, and the American South; Art Museum of the University of Memphis

2000, Sam Doyle: Heart and Soul - Paintings and Artist’s Materials from the Collection of Gordon W. Bailey; New Orleans Museum of Art

2000, Local Heroes: Paintings and Sculpture by Sam Doyle; High Museum of Art

1993, Passionate Visions of the American South Self-Taught Artists from 1940 to the Present; New Orleans Museum of Art

1987, Baking in the Sun: Visionary Images from the South - Selections from the Collection of Sylvia and Warren Lowe, University of Southeastern Louisiana Art Museum

1982, Black Folk Art in America 1930-1980, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Selected Collections

American Folk Art Museum, New York
High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA
Milwaukee Museum of Art, Milwaukee, WI
New Orleans Museum of Art, New Orleans, LA
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC

Selected Bibliography

Bailey, Gordon W., Sam Doyle,” The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture - Vol. 23, University of North Carolina Press, 2013 

The Museum of Everything, exhibition catalogue, Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli, Turin/Milan, 2010

Bailey, Gordon W., “Sam Doyle: Haints and Saints,” Raw Vision, #61, Winter 2007

Art Museum of the University of Memphis, exhibition catalogue, Coming Home: Self-Taught Artists, The Bible, and the American South, University Press of Memphis, 2004

High Museum of Art, exhibition catalogue, Local Heroes: Paintings and Sculpture by Sam Doyle, High Museum of Art, 2000

Arnett, William, “Sam Doyle,” Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art of the South, Vol. 1, Tinwood Books, 2000

Corcoran Gallery of Art, exhibition catalog, Black Folk Art in America 1930-1980, University Press of Mississippi and the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, 1982.

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