Island Ways of Seeing
a nurse & self taught artist carries on traditions of health & healing

by Lisa Annelouise Rentz
also published in the Beaufort Gazette & Hilton Head Island Packet

Folk artists on the Sea Islands have a distinct way of seeing. They know this land well enough to fill their canvases with how people interact with it; skirts flapping in the wind is a hallmark, for now. Their capacity to apply art to their own lives creates meaningfulness for us all.

The new Sam Doyle Folk Arts Festival is this month [March 2015] on St. Helena Island. The Red Piano Too has invited artists to paint works in dedication to Sam Doyle, and Penn Center offers an exhibit of original paintings by Sam Doyle surrounded by an arts and culture festival of “ingenuity and expression.”

“I’m very excited,” said Saundra Renee Smith. She is one of the featured artists and a registered nurse with a masters degree in health care administration. “Just the thought of being able to do something to honor Sam Doyle’s memory, and having this opportunity to review our Gullah culture.”

Smith has painted “The Seeker,” a scene that pays homage “to a time when as a part of Gullah culture and spirit, you were sent out to the wilderness to seek an answer from our spiritual guide. Wawatesa?” she added in Gullah, which means, what are you saying? “The people were asking this in the solitude and quiet of nature, trying to hear the answer,” she explained. 

Penn Center, with its 153 years of resilience, has come up with a few good answers while preserving solitude and nature. The mission of the institution has been remarkably consistent. One of the priorities is good health, including nutrition, child care, and the training of midwives. One of Sam Doyle’s paintings from his famous “St. Helena Out Door Art Gallery” of the 1960s through the 1980s is of his grandmother Sinder Ladson, titled “St. Helena’s first black midwife.”

“The midwife is one of the images I wanted to capture,” said Smith. “I’m one of the products, I was born at home. My aunt was the midwife. Nursing, and our history of the midwife and caring, is part of who I am. It’s a way of being.”

Last fall at Penn’s Heritage Festival, her aunt Rebecca Jackson was front and center on the parade float. How many communities are wise enough to pursue healthcare and the arts so powerfully? This is exactly the kind of smarts I look forward to seeing in folk art, and hope for beyond the canvas and St. Helena Island. As we spoke, Smith emphasized history and opportunity, components that are integral to her journey as a highly trained professional and a self-taught artist.

“Growing up I was fascinated by Sam Doyle’s art. I didn't understand it as well as I do now. The school bus passed by every day. It was an opportunity to peek through the window at the bright colors and activity. It was strange because you didn't see it in everyone's yard. Now it's absolutely awesome, he has left a legacy for the Gullah people and I embrace it,” said Smith.

What is she painting next?

“Sam Doyle talked about two personalities in men,” she said, referring perhaps to “He/She” in his long series of splendid portraits: a Gullah mailman, Dr. York Bailey, the first St. Helena football game, famous basketball players, a cast net maker. Doyle knew how to capture physique in motion and compassion in action.

“So I am working on “The Mustee,” Smith continued. “It pays homage to the blending of cultures, African and Indian was called “mustee.” Growing up, we thought they were talking about body odor, but as I’ve learned more about the history, it's about having Indian features.”

The stories and scenery on St. Helena Island are more plentiful than the shrimp in the river. Victoria Smalls, who is organizing the festival at Penn Center, has a great story about pole climbing contests and how she always beat the boys. I hope that’s a painting in the works too.

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