Gullah Art Culture
“There is pressure on this culture, and we are working to preserve it. We’re growing and we want to branch out and share our experience.” A sparkling confidence emanates from Dominique Tuttle when she talks about her love of art and Gullah traditions. Tuttle, and well-known artists Abraham Brown and Johnnie Simmons echoed this keen enthusiasm at a recent All About Art Club (AAA) meeting in Sun City.
AAA Club members gathered to meet the artists and learn about the traditions and art that is made across the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, a National Heritage Area that recognizes the unique culture of the African American people, especially those who have lived on the hard-to-reach sea islands off North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. According to AAA club co-president, Jan Urbanic, “The Gullah artists have a unique ability to convey their love for color, family, faith. and culture in their art. I was in awe of use of color and the energy it brought to the canvas.”
This meeting of the Gullah and Sun City art cultures was animated and engaging. Tuttle, Brown and Simmons set out to educate about the characteristics that are specific to the Gullah culture: the use of vibrant colors, the matriarchal society, slavery, and the expression of things done as family. Church is a staple of the art.
According to Tuttle, “Often faces in Gullah art are blacked or blued out. Why? Two reasons: first - a political statement since our people historically were not recognized as individuals.” She went on to explain that the art portrays people in situations that are familiar and we “each can relate to them—and see our own families.”
Tuttle was born on St. Helena and moved to Port Royal in 5th grade. She got a degree in art education at Claftin University, then returned to her childhood home and started volunteering at the Penn Center, home of our nation’s first schools for formerly enslaved people. The Penn Center continues to promote education, community welfare and African American cultural heritage. After one month, she was made a docent, and after 2 more months she was the full-time manager of the Welcome Center. “I was there for 2.5 years, and learned gallery techniques.” Tuttle, a textile and mixed media artist herself, then spent four years as the curator of the Black Chamber of Commerce Gullah Art Gallery/Museum in Beaufort.
The Sun City event featured artist Johnnie Simmons, who started making art by woodburning and painting in 2003. “I paint and develop things I’m used to and what I know. That’s farming and fishing.” Simmons’ explanations of his art are hilarious! His lively stories tell of his St. Helena Island up-bringing, recalling memories of the 1950s and '60s. The art features farm animals many of whom he refers to by name. He paints and woodburns images mostly on birch boards, and adds printed commentary that is quirky and colorful.
New Orleans born Abraham Brown is an experimenter. He paints, works on wooden panels, pours resin, and even uses recycled items and cement to makes his art, “I just love art. I’m always messing with materials. When he retired from the Marines in 2010, he followed his dream to be an artist. “I went to SCAD (the Savannah College of Art and Design.) I was the oldest guy in my classes, but it’s what I always wanted to do – to be a professional artist.” Brown has done murals in at least four local schools, and collaborated in a project to create a mural in a tunnel at the Technical College of the Lowcountry’s Mather School.
The presentation in Sun City ultimately turned into a conversation among artists, with the Sun City artists asking questions about materials and techniques. “How’d you do that?” one member asked, referring to a heron Brown had carved from birch and applied to another board.
The energy in the room was palpable. Sun City resident and AAA member, Marcie Frisch was enthusiastic. “I was impressed with the wood carvings and the process that was used.”
AAA Program Coordinator Pauline Oliver echoed that enthusiasm and said, “From the moment I met Dominque Tuttle, I knew she was exactly who I was looking for to be a presenter. She was so passionate about getting the word out. She, along with artists Johnnie Simmons and Abraham Brown, were a delight when they came to our own Sun City studio to talk about the history, the stories behind their work, and their unique styles.”
Currently both Simmons and Brown have art in the Gullah Art Gallery, and the Four Corners and Red Piano galleries. For more information contact the Gullah Art Museum at 711 Bladen Street, in Beaufort, email ARTGALLERY@BCBCC.ORG. You can see photos of Brown’s art on Instagram at abrahambrownartist or search the internet for paintings by Brown or Simmons.