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Often painted on flat or corrugated roofing tin or on large wooden panels, Sam Doyle’s images depict representatives of the sea island community of St. Helena, South Carolina, as well as iconic historic and religious figures, and modern American pop icons. The wide spectrum of Doyle’s portrayals is both astonishing and amusing, ranging from political leaders like Abraham Lincoln, to African American heroes such as Martin Luther King, Jr., and Ray Charles, to various local personalities like a revered midwife and an itinerant fishnet maker. St. Helena was not only Doyle’s home, but also his muse. His vibrant paintings record the island’s rich Gullah heritage, document community events, and address the effects of twentieth-century commercial development on the fragile barrier ecosystem.

The son of Thomas, Sr., and Sue Ladsen Doyle of Frogmore, South Carolina, Thomas Samuel Doyle, Jr., attended the nearby Penn School, which was founded by missionaries and abolitionists at the conclusion of the Civil War in 1862. Originally titled the Penn Normal, Industrial, and Agricultural School, it was the first recognized educational system designed to serve formerly enslaved Africans in the American South; Penn graduates went on to become teachers, social workers, ministers, doctors, and successful businesspeople. During his time at Penn, Doyle received encouragement for his artwork and studied history. Although he left school in the ninth grade to earn a living, Doyle continued to paint animals and other imagery.

St. Helena’s Island underwent substantial changes during Doyle’s lifetime. While once accessible only by boat, bridges built in the 1920s and 1930s began to link coastal villages with the mainland. Doyle took advantage of this easier commute, eventually relocating to the city of Beaufort. From 1930 to 1950, Doyle was employed as a porter at the McDonald, Wilkins and Company cotton warehouse. During his time in Beaufort, Doyle met and married Maude Brown and became the father to three children. The family permanently returned to St. Helena in 1943, but the move quickly became a source of contention. Seeking greater opportunities, his wife left for New York City in 1949, and his children ultimately chose to live on the mainland to finish high school and attend university.

After retiring from his post in the laundry facilities of the Parris Island Marine Corps Recruit Training Depot, Doyle turned his full attention to art. The artist estimated that he made between five hundred and seven hundred paintings—a staggering number that doesn’t include countless sculptures crafted of local roots and branches—and routinely displayed them in the yard outside his home. A frequent subject was the iconic St. Helena root doctor, Dr. Buz. Personifications of this healer, also called Dr. Buzzard, have existed as far back as 1700, and succeeding generations of Dr. Buz have served the spiritual needs of their communities for hundreds of years. According to Doyle, the “conch shell was his [Dr. Buzzard’s] phone line. He put it to his ear, he switch his hand in the air, and then must get an answer, ‘cause he say ‘Halo, halo, halo, this the Dr. talkin’ to you.’ You could hear him grumbling and talkin’ to the spirit with the conch shell to his ear.”

In Gullah culture, root doctors are recognized as conduits and conjurers who move between the world of the living and the spirit realm. Doyle’s distinctive dialect reflects Gullah linguistics, which combine vernacular, grammar, and speech patterns from West and Central Africa, as well as the Caribbean.

Doyle’s work was formally exhibited for the first time in Black Folk Art in America, 1930–1980, a large-scale exhibition that opened in 1982 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, and later toured throughout the United States. The popular presentation sparked increased interest in his work; despite this heightened demand, Doyle retained several paintings for himself and his community. While they now appear in major museums—including the High Museum of Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, among others—Doyle’s works remain deeply personal homages to his home, visual reminders that he hoped would help preserve rapidly vanishing Gullah culture. Such images were important for future generations, Doyle insisted, “so they’ll know something about the South when they come up.”