Sam Doyle (1906-1985) was born on St. Helena Island, South Carolina, where he attended Penn School, the first school for freed slaves. He lived in an area with a long and sustained African and African-American history and culture. His paintings depict people from his island, both legendary and local characters, as well as iconic figures from popular culture.
Doyle’s youth was spent in relative isolation in the Wallace community of St. Helena Island, which was then physically and culturally removed from the Beaufort mainland (a connecting bridge was not built until 1927). During the early decades of the 20 th century, St. Helena was a unique and predominantly African-American community comprised largely of descendents of former slaves who retained much of their African heritage and memories of the slave experience. Doyle had vivid recollections of the descendents of slaves who told him stories of plantation slave masters, slave atrocities, and supernatural occurrences. Those stories appeared frequently in Doyle’s art.
Doyle was employed at various jobs in Beaufort, South Carolina, working as a porter and laundry worker until his retirement in the late 1960s. Doyle married and had three children; his wife and children eventually moved to New York where all of the children attended college, but Doyle continued to live in the small house he built on St. Helena Island in 1940. Around 1968, Doyle resumed his childhood passion for drawing and painting. His paintings were executed using house paint on large wooden panels and cast-off pieces of roofing tin. The completed panels soon filled his yard, and an outdoor museum was born.
Favorite subjects for Doyle included Dr. Buzzard (Dr. Buz) a voodoo doctor on the island who was once St. Helena’s wealthiest African-American resident; “We We,” the island’s smallest woman; “Old Hag,” a woman riding on a man’s face as he sleeps; “Bull Dager,” half-stud, half-slut; and “Rocking Mary,” who wore high-heeled shoes and smoked a corn-cob pipe. Doyle also depicted sports and entertainment luminaries, including Joe “Brown Bomer” Louis, Jackie Robinson, Ray Charles, and Elvis Presley, as well as religious imagery such as the crucifixion of Christ, the Nativity, and the Three Wise Men.