by Susan W. Pidgeon
Sometimes you meet a person who stands out from the crowd. There just is something unusual about them that makes you take notice. Sonja Griffin Evans is one such person.
Sure, I had read a previous article about her written by a Beaufort paper so I knew some background info on her, but it was more than that. I looked at her work in the grandiose setting of a plantation home and immediately felt the irony of the fact that a black person was being esteemed for her art in the very place where slaves and the hierarchy of life on a plantation was still evidenced by the nearby slave cabins.
Advice to a young artist and a reminder of the meaning of McLeod
Prior to the musical event that supplemented her work, I overheard her advice to a young artist. Her words were “Here is what you do. You pray and say ‘Lord, what would you have me to do?” I smiled from the other room and thought to myself, “she is the real deal”.
Shortly thereafter we were all called out onto the wide plantation back porch and were treated to singing that was to serve as the voice of one of her paintings. She later spoke of how people lived together but seperate in the same home at McLeod and stated that God has a love for both black and white men. Ms. Evans quoted Martin Luther King, Jr. as having said “we might not have come over on the same ship, but we are in the same boat now”.
She also had the participants sing a version of “This Little Light of Mine”. Only one other time have I done that in a public setting and it was done by BB King at one of his last concerts that I had the pleasure of attending. Her point was well taken: be yourself and contribute in your own unique way.
Her spiritual journey into art
After the program, I approached Ms. Evans to ask her a few questions. She spoke of starting her art journey after a brief hospitalization in 2005 where she was given paints much like Matisse was by his mother during his illness. I learned she lives in Beaufort and is entirely self taught.
The reason she sometimes paints the figures faceless is that it is a Gullah tradition. She also referred to the fact that she likes people to use their imagination and that after awhile you will see someone there. To me directly she said she wants people to “see how God sees them and she pointed to the shadow on the floor…He sees the inside of a man not the skin color.”
Ms. Evans is a deeply religious woman. She and I had a rather surreal connection and shared a lot of hugs. She mentioned to me that she always includes three birds that represent the Holy Trinity in her paintings.
An admirable natural talent
I studied her paintings, and honestly I was stunned to learn she was self taught. Her mastery of form, the tonal variation in the trees, the volume and mass in her figures and the clothing were impressive. Her shading around the arms where skin met cloth were those of an admirable natural talent.
I asked her how often she paints and she referenced her form of “muses” that inspire her. Not only is Ms. Evans deeply religious but her heritage is paramount to her work as an artist. She told me she “paints when she is told to paint.” This tie to the spirit realm is very indicative of the Gullah-Geechee corridor and the reliance on herbs and the afterlife to guide you.
Taking in the history of McLeod
I spent the remainder of my time taking photos and talking to a young historian about the various historical aspects of McLeod Plantation. It was not only occupied by the Confederate army in 1865, it was later occupied by the Union army when the McLeods fled during wartime. It even later was occupied by the Freedmans Bureau in 1865 after the war and in fact, the McLeod family had to fight to get the property back.
Click here to see gallery of my photos of the day.
They eventually did and “Mr. Willy”, who was the grandson of the original McLeod relative, had it until the 1990s. He had rented out the slave cabins to his helpers at that point. One of the cabins (#9 third from the end) was even a makeshift church at one point.
After the purchase of the land by the Charleston Historical Foundation in 1990 and the subsequent purchase by Charleston County Parks & Recreation in 2011, McLeod Plantation has indeed found its true purpose as a preserved symbol of a bygone era and a way of life where both blacks and whites were mutually dependent on one another.
A moment of peace that was hard to leave
It was quite peaceful on that plot of land. I could not help but think of all the various historical events that had taken place there and those that lived there through the years both black and white during a simpler time. There are benches that one can sit and look out on the land that once held crops and/or tents of soldiers which I have seen in photographs.
The benches can also be used to view the slave cabins if you choose. From the corner of your eye, the movement of nearby traffic signals the current society that seems so far removed as you walk the shaded grounds of McLeod Plantation. I hated to leave that place and return to 2017.
Take the time to visit and be thankful
The last thing I saw was a plaque stating that if it were not for the organization Friends of McLeod none of this would have been possible. Indeed. A big “thank you” to them for the vision to see the value in the land and its respite from modern life.
Ms. Evans work can be purchased year round in the gift shop as you enter McLeod plantation.
Susan W. Pidgeon, MFA is the owner of The Studio Art Center on Fort Johnson Rd where she teaches private lessons and art classes to adults and children. She received her MFA from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in 2001 and has been teaching ever since. She has taught for the City of Charleston and Charleston County as well as The Artists Loft in Mt. Pleasant. She lives on and loves James Island. You can reach her at (854)202-5394 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can find her at www.thestudioartcenter.com or her Yelp/FB/Twitter or Instagram pages as well.