Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Gatekeeper of Airlie Gardens

There is nothing more germane to folk art than a sense of place. Folk artists generally do not have the kind of resources or inclination to travel the world, and their rootedness in their communities manifests itself in an intense connection to the people and environment around them. To truly understand some of the nation’s best folk art, you must experience first hand the locale that the artist inhabited or created.

Two items in the news this past week have really given me pause to reflect on this fact. I found out about both via Facebook groups, which tend to make all local news spread further than any national news network. In one story, the city of Los Angeles had plans to close two arts centers that operate at the Watts Towers complex, which would have effectively closed the towers to visitors. The towers, built over a period of several decades by Italian immigrant Simon Rodia, are one of the greatest, if not the greatest, environmental achievements by a folk artist in the United States. A community campaign was successful in getting the City Council to reconsider its plans and keep the Towers complex open.

The other news item is the proposed sale of Airlie Gardens in Wilmington, North Carolina by the New Hanover County Commissioners, who are looking to close a $13 million budget gap. The gardens are described as 67 acres of quintessentially Southern garden history. Established in 1901, the gardens feature a 450-year-old oak and more than 1,000 azaleas. The site means a great deal to generations of North Carolinians who have enjoyed it for its beauty and serenity.

But for anyone who knows American folk art, Airlie Gardens means something more; it was the inspiration for the vibrant, colorful, and intricate paintings of Minnie Evans.

Evans came to Wilmington with her mother in 1893, when she was a year old. Her mother remarried a man who was employed by Pembroke Jones, a wealthy industrialist, and by the age of 17 Minnie found work as a domestic in the Jones household. Jones’ wife, Sarah Green Jones, was the one who established Airlie Gardens.

From 1948 to 1974 Minnie was the gatekeeper at Airlie, collecting admissions and selling her artwork. She painted her delicate and fantastical scenes as a result of a divine vision, but the lushness and greenery of the work clearly evoked the garden setting that she saw every day. She once said, “God has some 600 shades of green, and He dressed the world with them.” To her the natural surroundings were a divine revelation, as one can readily see in her painting in the Fenimore Art Museum collection (above, painted between 1963 and 1967, and donated to FAM by Jane Ferrara).

Minnie sold her artwork at Airlie, and had her first “exhibitions” there. She died in 1987, but her work is so connected with the site that a local artist created a memorial sculpture garden within Airlie in her honor (see Bottle Chapel below) And just last month, on March 10, Airlie hosted a “Green Day” tribute to Minnie with free admission to the Gardens.

It would indeed be a shame to see the Gardens sold to private enterprise, somewhat akin to selling Monet’s Giverny, at least for me. The landscape that inspired a devout and talented gatekeeper deserves to continue to inspire its community.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this blog. I wasn't aware or remembered that Minnie Evans was connected to the gardens. Now I wonder what the outcome of this April 2010 post was!


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