Self-taught Gullah Artist Saundra Renee Smith hails from St. Helena Island. Using the paintbrush as an instrument for catharsis, Saundra awakened a latent ability she never imagined she would be sharing with the world. Saundra aspires to capture the lifestyle and historical perspective of the Gullah people, imbuing the sights and sounds of her upbringing into her vibrant work.
Hear about her visual journey and how she paints the quiet moments, secrets, colorful attire, conversations of Gullah people.
Michiel Perry: What early influences emboldened your pursuit of becoming an artist?
Saundra Renee Smith: My pursuit of art happened later in life following a period of great sadness and grief.
After losing four very dear family members six months apart for two years, I found myself lost and very broken-hearted. The last of these family members to pass into eternity was my dear mother, who we laid to rest on Christmas Eve of 2007. Art became my salvation and way of emerging from the darkness. By 2008 I had painted my way through the pain. This was especially wonderful because prior to that year I had never held a paintbrush in my hands. Pain taught me how to paint and helped me to release the artist I had never known was living inside of me.
Michiel: How has living in South Carolina influenced your creativity and work?
Saundra: Living on the isolated island of St. Helena, South Carolina, has influenced my art primarily through the use of water and palm trees in most of my work. Growing up on the marshlands of an isolated, but idyllic island-like St. Helena gives you the sense of living in a paradise lost. The land is lush and green with mighty moss-covered oaks and rivers flowing across every path, carrying food, health, and Gullah folktales on every tide. One cannot help but to be inspired by the unique and natural beauty of the island, and need only to look outside, see the colors, feel the breeze, smell the distinctive aroma, and listen to spirits of the ancestors to find creativity. So, when I hear “wha ee da say”, I immediately begin to look around for the inspiration that I know is there waiting to be transformed from spirit to life on canvas.
Michiel: Can you share more about your Gullah culture and how it is incorporated into your artwork?
Saundra: The Gullah/Geechee have a cultural corridor that spans from the east coast of the United States, from as far as North Carolina to the islands off the coast of Florida. Gullah is an irreplaceable culture of a people born in captivity. It consists of the blending of indigenous native American and African slaves. Gullah has a distinct dialect, cuisine, spiritual connection to the water, land and nature, which is viewed through our style of worship, colorful design in dress and head rags and wraps, as well as our basketmaking, among other things. I try to incorporate all of these aspects of our culture when trying to convey Gullah in my art work. These aspects of our Gullah life make us “bin-yahs”, which means we have always been here and we are at home.
Michiel: What is the inspiration behind the vibrant colors and the muted facial features displayed in your paintings?
Saundra: The colors in my work are inspired by the joy of a people born in isolation. Garments pieced together with many different colored cloths make for beautiful dresses and head rags which reflect the happiness found in freedom of the heart. In the Gullah culture it was taboo to paint the face of an individual, as the spirits might recognize them and snatch their souls away. The faces remain obscured in the art so the viewer can instead infer the features, mood, and expressions for themselves. In this manner the viewer becomes a part of the piece through his or her connection and spirit.
Michiel: What do you want your art to communicate?
Saundra: Art can be considered a spiritual expression of the creator. My goal in the creation of art is conveying a sense of hope, encouragement, and belief in the created and the Creator to all who are graced to find it. There is beauty in this world in all cultures and all people. My desire is to pass on the sense of what it means to “grow up Gullah”, as an authentic Gullah/Geechee native of the southeast coast of America, and to share with the world that the word Gullah means “kinfolk”, and in doing so help us to realize we are all one big human family.
Michiel: How does your activism and career of helping others compliment your art career?
Saundra: I chose my life’s career because of my love and caring for all people, as I gave help through the healing arts of nursing, counseling, and health care administration. This same compassion has transitioned into the next chapter in my life as I strive to educate and feed the hungry in my community. Our Gullah island was hit hard by COVID-19 and we have many lonely seniors and children isolated and hungry at home. My husband and I established our small church’s food bank ministry as a way of helping those most in need. The art of healing, which is spiritual, is made visual through my art and is a natural augmentation of my life’s artwork.
Michiel: Do you have another passion that fuels your art?
Saundra: Yes, I am so glad you asked! I love to decorate and create designs in my home, workspace, and the homes of friends and relatives. I have a knack for the proper placement of furniture, just the right wall color, wall art, and interior design items. This is a passion for me, but for my husband… not so much because things are always changing at my house!
Michiel: What is your favorite connection or experience you have had after finishing a piece of art?
Saundra: Of course, the best connection is selling it, but the best experience is talking to the person who bought the piece. From this conversation, I learn so much more about my work, myself, and about the buyer who can share their stories and experiences with me. All of my experiences have been wonderful, but like that first kiss, I think the first time my work was displayed and sold by the Red Piano Gallery on St. Helena Island will always be my favorite connection. Becoming a member of the National Association of Women Artists and having “Flowers Fa De Fisherman” hanging in a NY gallery is another favorite connection after finishing a piece.
Michiel: Can you describe feedback from your art that made you see your work differently?
Saundra: I strived to leave a piece of my spirituality and a little of myself in each piece I create. I knew this had been accomplished when one evening at an art show I presented an elderly lady with a bookmark I had made. The image on the bookmark was entitled “Hope”. She looked at the image and turned it over and over in her hands, and began to cry softly. Her daughter, who was with her, began to investigate her tears and soon she began to weep quietly. Needless to say, I also began to shed silent tears. They had made an unspoken spiritual connection to my art. Art can be a very powerful medium that crosses all barriers of time, space, and race.
Michiel: Do you consider different cultural experiences or how your art is perceived over time when creating your art?
Saundra: I am fascinated by other cultures and I am always eager to learn more about others. I embrace my work for what it represents, Gullah. As a culture and a people, we are poised on the border of extinction, just as the Guale Indian who are no longer recognized. My hope in leaving my Gullah folk art to history is that it will be a lasting reminder of the Gullah/Geechee people who were once named, but are no longer identifiable.
Michiel: How do you motivate yourself to start your next piece?
Saundra: Motivating myself to create a new piece has been a challenge during COVID-19. However, motivation comes from a shape that I see or a color that is beautiful and vibrant that calls out to be put on canvas, tin, or glass. I never know what the piece will be until it is completed. It is called into existence on the canvas with the brush and paint.
Michiel: What would you say to people who would like to become a professional artist?
Saundra: My career as an artist was more of a transition from one type of art to another. I would say to those individuals who are actively engaged in a full-time career to make sure art is your passion, and to have a plan to ensure others know what you have to offer. Plan to work hard at it and make it work for you. Above all, have fun and believe in yourself. Renee believed she could do it, so she did. Hunnah kee do um too! (You can do likewise!)
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