Sam Doyle lived all but a few years of his life on St. Helena Island, the center of America’s unique Gullah culture, and a relatively isolated community of people descended from enslaved Africans who maintained deep roots in West African traditions.
Following retirement in the late 1960s, Doyle committed to “painting history,” declaring his mission to honor Gullah culture and, more generally, African American advancement. His museum-like display evolved into the St. Helena Out Door Art Gallery, where both haints (spirits) and saints were celebrated. He immortalized many legendary denizens and gave shape to the unseen phenomena of his youth. With his recognizable contrasted and flatly applied color palette, monumental quality, and immediate clarity of message, Doyle’s oeuvre also included two important series: “Penn” (school) and “First,” which center staged the best of Black America—its icons and seminal achievements. The Gullah’s Sea Island Creole English was Doyle’s first, and his phonetically spelled words further enhance his works and inform the viewer.
Doyle defended the artworks in his outdoor gallery from the harsh climatic extremes of the South Carolina Lowcountry’s coast. Nearly all of his older works, created with salvaged, non-galvanized, metal roofing, and house paint, bear clear evidence of his attempts to rejuvenate them; some were virtually rebirthed. Their rusted surfaces provide rich testimony to the socioeconomic challenges overcome by Doyle, who, like many impoverished artists, worked determinedly with repurposed materials and rudimentary tools.
—Adapted from “Sam Doyle” by Gordon W. Bailey in The Hidden Art (New York: Skira Rizzoli/American Folk Art Museum, 2017), 182–185.