Reflections on the Life and Death of Minnie Evans
Early in my 25-year association with Minnie Evans, came my conviction that in her work was clear evidence of a mystery: an artist unschooled and isolated – by poverty, by race, by geography – who somehow developed an imagery shared startlingly with her contemporaries the Surrealist artists of Europe and America. Concurrently, Minnie Evans herself was mystified. From my earliest association with her she repeatedly urged me to offer or find “interpretation” of her work. She often volunteered that her pictures “are just as strange to me as they are to anybody else.”
To her friend in Wilmington, George Rountree Jr., the man who helped me gain Minnie’s confidence and whom she described to me as her “good friend” when I first visited Minnie in her home in 1962; to “Lawyer Rountree” Minnie was ever “a mystery.” That is how he described her to me when, later in our friendship, I very earnestly sought an expression of his understanding of her and her art.
“My whole life has been dreams” amounts to a refrain in discussions I have had with Minnie Evans about her life. As for the Surrealists, dreams and visions were so important that at times they sought to induce them. No need for Minnie Evans to induce dreams or visions, she who sometimes could barely differentiate between them, as well as between dreams and wakeful experience. References to startling similarities between Minnie Evans and the Surrealists may be little better than suggested here. But there is her own vivid description of the automatism so prized by the Surrealists when she told me “something had my hand” and yet more vividly, her reference to “an engine” driving her hand. Then, too, there are her occasional “turn around” pictures recalling certain of Jean Arp’s works that invite turning around. Furthermore, we have her numerous examples of what is best described as ancient writing that bring to mind Paul Klee; while her sometimes vividly visceral biomorphism recalls much of Miro, and again Arp. Little wonder that some years ago, soon after critic Barbara Rose referred to Evans as an “Unconscious Surrealist,” I proposed “Innocent” as better qualifying the type of Surrealist Evans clearly was. For whereas the Surrealists sought their dreams and direction, Minnie Evans wondered at, but welcomed the “lost world that no one has history of” that was so freely revealed to her.
“Mystery” as she undoubtedly was, and powerful visionary artist, still Evans remained ever, during our long friendship, the reliable correspondent, fascinating companion, faithful friend and proud family member, who lives on today in my heart and mind. I recall 1969, when the Wilmington members of The Links, the prestigious national organization of African American women, honored her by presenting her with a brass plaque of recognition at a luncheon meeting held at the Blockade Runner Hotel at nearby Wrightsville Beach.
I received an invitation to the luncheon and traveled to Wilmington to attend with her. As we assembled in the large lobby of the hotel before lunch, Minnie, finely dressed in an elegant ivory brocade dress, and wearing a smart cloche, introduced me to many of the ladies, saying “Meet Mrs. Starr, she is president of my pictures in New York.” Although I was not president of anything at the time, I happily accepted this title as fitting. For George Rountree had by then provided me with a Power of Attorney, given me the authority to act for Minnie Evans, later to establish the New York bank account in her name where I deposited all payments from sales, and otherwise to truly represent her.
During my many travels to Wilmington, to attend shows of Minnie Evans’ work, to speak about her importance as an artist, to visit with her and her son George, and to take part in the production of the Light-Saraf film “The Angel That Stands By Me,” there came a solemn and sad occasion. In April 1984, I was present at a small gathering seated around a table in the New Hanover County Court House in Wilmington, summoned to determine the legal competency of Minnie Jones Evans.
Those present were Assistant Clerk of Superior Court Betty B. Balch; Dr. Alan E. Thomas, Minnie Evans’ physician since 1975; George Evans; and attorneys Harry E. Payne and John F. Carter, III, who were at that time also representing Minnie Evans. There was considerable discussion about Ms. Evans’ extreme deafness and poor vision, as well as her widespread failing healthy, generally. When asked whether a hearing aid would be helpful, also a cataract operation, her son testified that over the years she had had three hearing aids and discarded them all. This pretty much discouraged discussion of the helpfulness of a cataract operation. Mr. Payne asked Dr. Thomas if she could recover from her manifold failings, and he simply said, “No.”
Her progressively failing health had been obvious to me for some time. I had called her on her birthday the last two years. In our conversation in 1982, she had asked me “You still got my pictures?” and inquired about my family. But in 1983, her conversation was limited to the words “birthday,” and “thank you,” and when I sent love, she replied “the same.” And that, of course was almost a year before the hearing, as her birthday was in December.
So it was that when Minnie was found incompetent by Court Officer Betty Balch, it saddened but did not surprise me. After the hearing, I visited Minnie inn the nursing home where she had been cared for several years. Although I had my camera with me, I chose to photograph only her dear frail right hand resting on the bed cover. We spoke little and parted with loving recognition.
Three years later, in December, came word that Minnie had died, and I was prepared. I flew to Wilmington, where George Evans, and also Harry Payne, Minnie’s guardians respectively of her person, and of her estate, both knew that I planned to attend her funeral and in fact hoped to participate in it. Welcomed by both of them, and other members of the family, and invited to stay in the home of Minnie’s and my good friend, Jo Kallenborn, I rested and prepared to participate in the funeral.
Arriving at St. Matthew A.M.E. Church the next day I was directed to a seat in the chancel and found my name included in the printed program –under Acknowledgments-followed by the Obituary by Mrs. Georgia Franks, and preceding a Solo and a Eulogy. When my moment came, facing the hushed gathering below me, I greeted them, and felt within me the challenge I welcomed. For, as I told them, I would tell about Minnie’s hearing God’s voice, and I then added solemnly “I have a message from Minnie.” This is what I told them:
Like the boy Samuel in the Bible, when Minnie was a child she heard a voice calling her by name. Samuel thought the voice he heard was Eli’s but it was God calling him. And Minnie thought the voice she hear was Mama Mary’s. But Mama Mary had not called. Years later, Minnie again heard a voice, and she KNEW it was God. This is how she told it to me. “I didn’t go to sleep. I didn’t have a chance. Just as I closed my eyes a beautiful light appeared in my room, and the light was in the northeast corner. I am sure. There was a great wreath. I didn’t see the wreath but I saw the shadow of the wreath; and behind the shadow of this wreath is where God spoke to me. He said: ‘I am Jehovah, your God. This light that you see know shall shine around all of you.’ But you know I became very happy and had to get out of bed and praise God for that. And God talked to me. I didn’t talk back to him, but He talked to me. He gave me that guarantee: ‘This light that you see shall shine around all of you.’ Then He told me, ‘I am Jehovah your God.’ So I have lived on that ever since. I try to live in a way, let nothing come between me and my Savior. I pass all little obstacles, all little things that would be crossing; I pass them by. I turn my back on them. I tell them: I’ve got something to do, you know. God has given me this to do. So I don’t have time to fool with things that’s not worth anything. Just imagine, my neighbors and church members, (I hope they will hear this sometime) laughing and nudging each other and calling me crazy because I was PRAYING!”
At this point I stopped, and faced the congregation, and said with force, “These are Minnie’s words” and then continued:
“But my prayer was this. I wanted God to create in me a clean heart. I pray the prayer that David prayed. I want to live the life and pass the life from getting angry at things people say and things people do. I wanted God to create in me a clean heart and then RENEW the right spirit within me. That’s what I prayed for and that’s what He did. Since then I KNOW He did, because I can bear so much, because I put my trust in God. And I do wish that each and every one of my friends and neighbors would do the same thing.”
As I closed, I sensed from those “friends and neighbors” their awed attention and acceptance. In fact I had felt it also during my reading, as I heard voiced acceptance. My own satisfaction lay in the opportunity, on this moving occasion, to offer Minnie Evans’ own words that revealed the depth of her spirituality, candor, and most fittingly, her readiness to defend the integrity of her life.
After the service I lingered briefly among those gathered across the sparsely grassed lawn, receiving thanks, and hearing words of appreciation from Minnie’s family and a number of her neighbors and church members, until the chill of dusk scattered us, and my friends drove me to the airport for my journey home.
Starr, Nina Howell, Minnie Evans: Surrealist. In Minnie Evans: Artist, Greenville, North Carolina, (Wellington B. Gray Gallery, East Carolina University), 1993: 27-29.