ST. PETERSBURG — It was nine years ago when a voice told Sonja Griffin Evans that she would become an artist. What surprised Evans most was that the voice was her own.
“I started painting in 2005 as a form of therapy,” Evans remembered. “It’s funny because my therapist asked me at the time, ‘What is it that you like to do? What is your hobby?’ And I said, ‘I like to paint!’ And the minute I said that I looked around the room to see who had said it, because I’d never painted a thing in my life! My art career just took off from that moment on.”
At the time, Evans’ stepmother—who was an artist as well—had broken her wrist, so she gave Evans use of her studio, paints and even some art books. Evans took to painting right away as inspiration gripped her and didn’t let go.
“I’ll never forget the very first piece I painted—I painted 24 hours straight!” she recalled. “It’s like a water faucet of creativity was turned on, and it’s never stopped.”
Completely self-taught, the 44 year old has had no formal art training and believes that God gave her the gift of painting to encourage and inspire others.
“Everything in life has a purpose” she affirmed. “Even the grass that we stand on every day has a purpose for sustaining the environment in which we live. So the gifts and the talents we have are for a purpose.”
Originally from Beaufort, S.C., Evans depicts in her paintings many scenes of the Low Country region of the South, which encompasses some coastal parts of South Carolina, Georgia and even Florida, including the Sea Islands. This area is renowned for its Gullah population—descendants of the African slaves, which maintained their culture and even a language that has preserved much of their African heritage.
“Because they were isolated on islands,” Evans explained, “they maintained more of the African cultures, so I paint those Low Country scenes.”
The images are simplistic yet striking. Many depict everyday chores and scenes such as “The Cotton Picker,” “Reaping the Harvest” and “Fresh Linens,” which is dominated by a lone black woman who cuts a sharp image against her white dress, the light blue sky and the stark white sheets she is hanging to dry. As in most of Evans’s works, the subject has no facial features. Evans explained that she often presents people in this purposely-ambiguous manner to show that they could be anyone.
“I try to capture the essence of who the person is,” she said, “more so in their work than their demeanor or their outside appearance.”
Her work “The Offering” is her rendition of Ruby Bridges, the young African-American girl who broke the color barrier in the Southern elementary school system. In this arresting piece, a solitary figure of little girl in a white dress and white hair bow stands out from a ostensibly nonsensical chaos of color behind her.
“When I painted that I was in Washington, D.C. and it was right before the cherry blossom season,” Evans stated. “So the little girl is holding these cherry blossoms in her hand, and I call it ‘The Offering.’ Like when Japan gave the United States over 3,000 cherry blossom trees as a symbol of friendship, here’s this little girl giving her offering, a branch of the cherry blossom tree. That was her offering and her courage that was involved.”
Though she mostly works in acrylics, Evans employs some unique methods in her artwork, at times opting to paint on some unconventional materials.
“I call them ‘rescue’ items,” she said. “I paint on canvas but I also paint on wood or things that people may discard. One of the pieces in the gallery is painted on 100-year-old aged copper from an old house in Jacksonville. They were tearing the house down so they saved a piece of copper for me, and I painted a couple of pieces on that.”
Evans loves to travel to various parts of the country and absorb the African cultures of different regions, which she depicts in her pieces. In her “Spirit of New Orleans” collection, Evans shows unique scenes of the city such as “Louisiana Crab Boil” and “The Thrill Is Gone Away,” which features a Delta bluesman hunched over his acoustic guitar, plucking away.
In her “Forgotten Communities” collection, she portrays many scenes of African American communities in Pensacola, where she resided for nearly 20 years. This collection, along with much of her other work, is available at www.gumboartgallery.com. She initially opened the Gumbo Gallery in downtown Pensacola in 2009 to make it a cultural heritage attraction and as an initiative to get other artists to exhibit their work, she said. Though Evans has since closed the Pensacola location and is currently looking for another spot for the gallery, all the paintings can be viewed and purchased on the website.
It was late 2012 when Evans was first invited to exhibit her work in St. Pete, at the Feathered Serpent Gallery, at 1018 Central Ave. She has since built a relationship with galleries in the area, including the Carter G. Woodson Museum and Gallerie 909, at 909 22nd St. in St. Pete, where her work is currently on display. Evans said she plans to exhibit a series in October based on the history and culture of the Deuces neighborhood in St. Pete, where Gallerie 909 is located.
Though artists can typically list famous masters as influences in their work, Evans claims that there isn’t any individual artist that has inspired her work, but a broad spectrum of history and heritage.
“My influence is the many different African cultures,” she explained, “more so than any one person.”
The time it takes for her to start and finish a single painting can vary wildly, as she admitted that some paintings can be completed in one sitting while others take months. Yet since she sees each painting as a culmination of personal life experience, it’s always a movable time frame.
“All work is at the beginning stages when you’re living your life,” she postulated. “It took me 44 years of my life to come around to those pieces because I have to live those moments—those hurts and those pains and those joys and all the emotion that you see in these pieces. So as I experience them, that’s when they burst onto the world.”
What does she perceive as the most challenging thing about being an artist?
“Not being able to have enough pieces!” she exclaims. “As fast as I paint them they’re gone. That’s a good challenge to have! However another challenge is not having enough venues like the Dr. Carter G. Woodson Museum for artists like myself to showcase our cultural art.”
She admitted that what she loves most about painting is people’s reactions when they view her work.
“It was kind of overwhelming for me when I first started,” she said. “Certain people will actually cry, and I think they’re tears of joy or there’s something in their life that they’re dealing with and they say that the piece touches them. You know how people say, ‘It speaks to me!’’ It’s something that I enjoy doing and I believe that I was created to do this. We are here for a reason and during that time we should try to fulfill the purpose of why we’re created to be here.”
If you’d like to see Evans’ work in person visit Gallerie 909, 909 22nd St. S. through Aug. 3. FYI 727-565-3930.