Minnie Evans (Jones) was the only child of Joseph Kelley, a farmer, and Ella Jones of Pender County, North Carolina. Ella, then only 14 years old, moved to Wilmington early in 1893 to live with her mother, who soon assumed responsibility for Minnie's upbringing. Minnie Jones attended school through the sixth grade, dropping out in 1903 because of the family's economic hardship, finding a job as a "sounder" selling shellfish door to door. In 1908 she quit to marry Julius Evans. For eight years, she was a full-time housewife. The couple had three sons.
Beginning in 1916, Minnie Evans was employed as a domestic at the home of her husband's employer, Pembroke Jones, a wealthy industrialist. The Evans family lived on Jones's 2,200-acre (8.9 km2) hunting estate, "Pembroke Park," known today as the subdivision Landfall. Evans began drawing on Good Friday 1935. She said "I had a dream, its voice spoke to me: ‘Why don't you draw or die?' ‘Is that it?,' I said, ‘My, My.'" Her son, George, was in the house and said she came out her bedroom door "screaming and hollering." That morning she completed a pair of small pen-and-ink drawings on paper; these works, dominated by a pattern of concentric circles and semicircles upon a background of lines, became greatly significant to her in her later life. Most of her earliest pieces were executed in wax crayons; she later turned to colored pencil and, in the early 1940s, oils.
Her first "exhibitions" were in 1948, at Airlie Gardens, which had been established by Pembroke Jones's wife, Sarah Green Jones, as a lush, flowing, naturalistic Southern garden. Earlier, when Evans's world was dominated by the greenery of Pembroke Park, her paintings were full of shades of green. But, after 1948, her work began to bloom in colors and in images of actual flowers, for Minnie Evans was then the Airlie gatekeeper - collecting admissions and selling her artwork on the side. In 1961, she had her first formal exhibition of drawings and oils at a gallery in Wilmington. In 1962, she became friends with Nina Howell Starr, who would publicize her work for the next 25 years. Starr helped to launch Evans' career by storing and selling her art in New York City. She also guided her in the art world, by making her sign and date her pieces. In 1966, Starr arranged for Evans' first New York exhibit and, in 1975, curated a major Evans exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Minnie Evans was not fazed by her new celebrity. "She was just doing what the Lord told her to do. She was more interested in pleasing God than people," George Evans told Airlie historian Susan Taylor Block, in 2005. Evans died December 16, 1987, leaving more than 400 artworks to the St. Johns Museum of Art (now the Cameron Art Museum) in Wilmington. After Evans's death, artist Virginia Wright-Frierson designed and built the Minnie Evans Bottle Chapel at Airlie Gardens in her memory.
Evans began to draw and paint at the age of 43, creating her first pieces of artwork on a scrap of paper bag. Five years later she decided to really dedicate herself to recording her dreams through art. She painted her early works on US Coast guard stationery and later worked with more precision, using ink, graphite, wax crayon, watercolour and oil on canvas, board and paper.
Evans' drawings were inspired by her dreams and filled with many colors, possibly inspired by her work at Airlie Gardens. Her designs are complex, with elements recalling the art of China and the Caribbean combined with more Western themes. The central motif in many pieces is a human face surrounded by plant and animal forms. The eyes, which Evans equated with God's omniscience, are central to each figure. In addition, God is sometimes depicted with wings and a multicolored collar and halo and shown surrounded by all manner of creatures.
Of her drawings, Evans once said that "this art that I have put out has come from the nations I suppose might have been destroyed before the flood. . . . No one knows anything about them, but God has given it to me to bring [them] back into the world."
Now recognized as one of the most important visionary folk artist of the 20th century, her work is highly collected by many museums and collectors all across the world. Despite her prolific and long career, her works do not come up for sale often. When they do, there is always strong competition. Her work has been, and in some cases is still, on display at many museums across the country. Her work can be viewed at such museums as the Museum of Modern Art, the Smithsonian Institution, the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, the American Folk Art Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, and the High Museum of Art.
Susan Taylor Block, "Airlie: The Garden of Wilmington." Airlie Foundation, 2002. Fred Wharton and Susan Taylor Block, "The Bottle Chapel at Airlie Gardens," 2008. UNCW.
- Biography, Smithsonian American Art Museum website
- Biography, Outsider Folk Art website
- Nina Howell Starr. "Minnie Evans" (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1975) Exhibition Catalogue
- Charles M. Lovell et al. "Minnie Evans: Artist" (Greenville, NC: Wellington B. Gray Gallery, East Carolina University, 1993) Exhibition catalogue
- Outsider Art Sourcebook, ed. John Maizels, Raw Vision, Watford, 2009