August 2018 Issue
When it comes to her Gullah-inspired paintings, Outsider Folk Artist Saundra “Renee” Smith is actually anything but. It’s her insider’s perspective, her deep and rich Gullah family legacy, gleaned from a lifetime of living on St. Helena’s Island that has earned our August cover artist a place among America’s great outsider folk artists, according to the National Advisory Board for the Folk Society of America. “My art is a testament of “grow-in up Gullah; it captures ladies with hats pulled low to cover secrets carried softly on the waters which run so deeply through the veins of the Gullah culture.”
Outsider Folk artists, explains Renee, are those with no formal training, who are self-taught, and that is certainly the case for Renee. “I never painted, I never drew. I was a nurse.” But all that changed in 2008, when Renee, having suffered the loss of four family members in just two years, found herself sitting on her back porch gazing off in the distance across the water. “I was like a robot,” she says, “just barely moving through life, pulling my metaphorical hat low over my eyes. I was functioning, but inside I was dying. And that’s where my husband found me when he came home one day and set up an easel, set up a plain white canvas, handed me some paintbrushes and paint in colors of all kinds and said: ‘Try this. Do this. And then come back to me. I need you to come back to me.’ The first color I picked up was a bright, bold cerulean blue. I painted a wide vibrant swath of color across the white canvas and something inside me woke up. I came back to my husband. I came back to myself. I came back to my Gullah roots and I started to live again.”
Renee says it was memories of growing up on the island that first came back to her; memories of going to church as a young girl and seeing the ladies in their hats. “Most were homemade, some were store bought, but they were always beautiful and colorful,” Renee recalls. “And I remember seeing these women outside on the island, always busy, always doing something and yet always a little bit mysterious beneath the wide brims. Gullah women, my mother included, communicated very well without making much sound. They didn’t say a lot, but a lot was said by a look. And a touch. They were strong women. Their men often had to leave the island to find work to care for their families, leaving the women behind to find and forge a way. And that’s just what they did. They made something out of nothing. They did it day after day after day. That was the beauty of the culture, and what I try to capture in my paintings.”
Renee remembers waking up many mornings as a child and looking out the window to see her mother kneeling on the banks of Caper’s Creek gathering oysters at the riverside for breakfast. “And it would be GOOD!” Renee says. “Oysters and grits. I didn’t realize that oysters were all we had, that my mother was making a way out of no way to feed us. So when I paint my Gullah women in their hats, almost always near the blue water, hiding their faces and their secrets as they quietly go about making a way out of no way, it’s my way of remembering and honoring the strong spirit of our Gullah culture.”
When her husband took some of her paintings to a local gallery to be framed, the gallery owner asked to see more, and in 2008—just a year-and-a-half after picking up her first paintbrush—Renee was named Featured Artist of the Year by the Penn Center.
After retiring last year from a long and distinguished career in nursing; she holds an undergraduate degree in nursing, a Masters in health care administration, and a doctorate in Christian Counseling, Renee is delving deeper into her love of Outside Folk art, and taking an active leadership role in community health awareness via her church.
Find more about Outsider Folk Art, view a gallery of Renee's work and make purchases at her website www.gullahartbyrenee.com