SAUNDRA “RENEE” SMITH
The bright hues born from a culture tempered in isolation is what makes my authentic work a special tribute to the Gullah people who hold a place wholly unique in American history. Located in the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor of the southeastern coast of the United States, the Gullah people have lived and thrived. Being a neighbor of the famous folk artist Sam Doyle, I aspire to capture the historical prospective of the Gullah people through visual art. Gullah is a language and the culture which evolved from the people living in the Sea Islands. The Gullah are a people of African decent with a gentle blending of the Indians who inhabited these sea islands, the Guale. The memories of “de luk pon we islund” is inspired by the isolation of the Gullah people, which once maintained, helped to keep the culture intact. Cotton, rice, indigo, basket weaving, colorful dresses, and brightly colored head rags and hats to cover unique nappy hair is what inspires me to paint. My self-taught skills of outsider art, was born through pain, and has earned me a place among Americas great outsider folk artist, according to B. Sellen of the National Advisory Board for the Folk Society of America. My art is a testament of “grow-in up Gullah” on St. Helena Island South Carolina. My work is spiritual and transforming as it strives to tell the visual story of the culture of a unique people. The art 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. Follow me for a visual journey of life in it's most natural and innocent state, untouched and in full color, the authentic look upon our island with Gullah Art By Renee.
My medium ranges from acrylic on canvas or board, to old tin or glass window panes! Each piece strives to captures the natural beauty of the salt marshes, tidal creeks, and palmetto trees in elegant, vivid colors. A peek through the eyes of simplicity and innocence shows what it means to be a part of a unique culture and lifestyle. Ever present is the water, whose spirit sustains us. Our blue roots will be kept alive through the visual and oral education of our next generation.
August 2018 Issue of Pink Magazine.
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.