Sam Doyle American , 1906-1985


Sam Doyle was a native of the island of St. -Helena, off the South Carolina coast. Discovered about 1520, St. Helena was occupied by the Spanish, French, and English until the American Revolution. During the years of the infamous transatlantic slave trade, many captured Africans were brought to the American islands, and in St. Helena, this population engendered the Gullah culture, which preserved African folk traditions. Doyle attended the Penn School, founded in 1862 to teach skills to newly liberated slaves, but family difficulties led to him dropping out after the ninth grade. Although his artistic talent was recognized from an early age, Doyle did not pursue further studies or full-time practice as an artist until his retirement in the 1960s. He held a variety of jobs, including store assistant, porter, and laundry worker on a Marine Corps base. He was married and had three children, but when the marriage ended his wife and children left him and eventually moved to New York.

It was about this time when Doyle focused all his energy on art and fully explored the pictorial lexicon that he had begun to develop in his spare time since 1944. He worked on plywood boards or pieces of ungalvanized roof tin with house paint (the materials most readily and cheaply available) and the outside of his house rapidly became a gallery for his work as well as a place for locals to learn about their shared history, reimagine their present, and connect to people from the mainland. In seeking to memorialize the accomplishments and idiosyncrasies of his fellow islanders and the African American community at large, Doyle became a visual historian and storyteller whose subjects ranged from legendary characters in the island’s folklore (the frightening and playful “Old Hag” and “Jack-O-Lanton”) to American icons (Martin Luther King Jr., Ray Charles, Jackie Robinson, and Joe Louis among them) to close acquaintances and notable members of the Gullah society.

Doyle’s gestural technique in his portraits and narrative works captured the soul and vivacity of his subjects. His palette varied radically from one painting to the next, but his signature mode of representation—an expressive, abstracted, flattened figuration—remained recognizable across the board. Straightforward as it may seem, Doyle’s work is always embedded with implicit or explicit commentary and several layers of meaning; in its mission to entertain, preserve, and educate, it remains one of the most valuable insights into the Gullah culture that has ever been produced. In 1982 Doyle’s work was included by curator Jane Livingston in the pioneering exhibition Black Folk Art in America 1930–1980 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. The exhibition provided Doyle’s only trip away from home and brought him praise and recognition far beyond St. Helena. Today, Doyle’s work is in private and museum collections around the world, including the American Folk Art Museum (New York), the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Milwaukee Art Museum, the High Museum of Art (Atlanta), the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts (Houston), the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum (Washington, D.C.).