From dark to light

0215-People-SonjaEvans honors her roots and cherishes her evolution

Ten years ago, Sonja Griffin Evans was trying to battle out of a very dark place. In therapy and fighting through a battle with depression, Evans was asked what makes her happy.
She thought back to her days drawing anything that came to her mind in high school. She thought of her Gullah heritage. And then, she just started painting.
A decade later, Evans is one of the featured artists at the 2015 Gullah Celebration XVII Arts Ob 
We People annual art exhibition, a healthy, celebrated and thriving artist still using art as her daily therapy.

“In 2005, my stepmother was an artist and she said I could use her space. That very first piece, I painted for almost 24 hours straight. It was a mother and a child standing in water,” Evans said. “In the distance, she saw a lighthouse and I was inspired to draw mother and child with arms around each other. Looking back on it, it’s a mother love, it’s God’s love. The lighthouse was me finding my way back.”
Through her more than 600 pieces of artwork, the Beaufort native has consistently called on her Lowcountry roots to become a master of the traditional Gullah style, using vibrant and telling colors.
“From that very first piece, colors have been so important. The mom’s red dress was symbolic of love. The girl’s purple outfit, it represented her coming to recognize she was someone special, someone who was suppose to be loved, finding her self worth,” Evans said. “From that moment, I felt the faucet was turned out. I was literally speaking my destiny and didn’t even know it.”
Evans’ destiny had taken her in a much different path to that point. She joined the Army out of high school, looking for something focused on computers and hoping to travel the world. She eventually became an expert at aligning missiles to hit their target, but her tours of duty only involved moving around the South between Texas, Alabama and Louisiana.
After leaving the military, Evans became a customer service specialist for AmSouth Bank for seven years. An accident at work in Florida changed her physically and mentally.
“At that moment, I couldn’t put myself back together,” she said. “I was in denial for a couple months, in a lot of physical and spiritual pain. My mother called me one night at 11 p.m. and said, ‘If I come for you, will you go?’ She drove overnight and we both returned to Beaufort.”
After six months of healing and therapy in Beaufort and a newfound passion for painting, Evans moved back to Pensacola, Fla., where her work was soon featured in a local newspaper stating that her work was akin to Michelangelo. That became an exciting upward trajectory.
And with it, Evans said the Gullah roots she once took for granted became a driving force for her.
“I felt I lost my identity for so long. And now, I have this opportunity to make the invisible much more visible,” she said. “I had to learn who Sonja was and with it, I really learned about my culture and my heritage. When you live in it, you don’t really even realize that your culture is different than everywhere else. Getting away, it made me appreciate it so much more.”
As Evans grew as an artist, she also felt passionate about giving other artists opportunities to discover themselves. She founded the National For Artists – By Artists Society and has been a major force in the development for the Forgotten Communities Art Program for the Pan African American Culture Heritage Initiative, a program that preserves and promotes the heritage of Pan African people through the arts.
Her work has led to opportunities throughout the country, her pieces are featured in collections worldwide, but she said she knew she needed to return to her roots.
The mother of two adult sons said simply, “It was time to come back.”
As she returned to live in Beaufort in early 2014, Evans also embraced a whole new direction in her art.
“Habitat for Humanity was having an art auction and they wanted something specific, something called upcycling. They asked us to take any item and make something of it,” she said. “I took a raggedy, six-foot-tall plantation shutter and a rusty piece of tin. When I got home, I was thinking, ‘What am I going to do with this?’”
So she did what she said has become her mantra: she listened closely, stayed still and allowed God to guide her footsteps.
“I saw a women standing in the middle of that tin. I see these visions, I feel their emotion and the stories they tell,” she said. “This piece was called Hope. She was in an old tattered dress, hat on, eyes lightly closed, face turned down, but on her hat was a big bright yellow sunflower. It said brighter days are coming.”
The piece inspired a bidding war and as Evans said, “I was like, ‘OK, maybe this is it’.”
“When I see a piece of tin or wood or an old door, I see people, I see the culture and I feel a privilege in being selected to tell their stories through the materials.”
Evans and her Gumbo e-Gallery have won many prestigious awards, including the 2013 African Diaspora World Tourism Flame Keepers Award for honoring the culture and heritage of people of African descent. She also received the Mamie Till Mobley Woman of Courage Award and was an Onyx Award Nominee.
She was named the 2014 Penn Center artist of the year and her work commemorating historic Mitchelville was recently selected for permanent display at the Westin Resort & Spa. And she is a featured artist and finalist for the inaugural National Black Women in Jazz & the Arts Day celebration and awards in Atlanta.
Now 45 and soon to be single for the first time in two decades, Evans is currently the resident artist at the Three Sisters Resale and More gallery on Hilton Head Island. She said faith, the beauty of the island and the people of the Lowcountry are helping her constantly discover her next chapter.
“When I came back home, I didn’t feel this bright bulb Caribbean art that is traditional Gullah. I felt more of the natural tone, the peacefulness of nature and the spirituality of this area, Palmetto Bay, Daufuskie Island, it makes me want to tell stories with my work more than ever,” she said. “The trees, the rocks, the tin, they cry out. I try to capture the spirituality of the pieces. What I felt as a child, what I feel now as an adult, it’s about natural tones straight from the land. Pieces of old houses, any material … everything here has a story.”
To Evans, everything God created has a purpose and should never be wasted.
“When I look back on my life, a lot of the things I have done prepared me for the very thing I was created to do,” Evans said. “I will always honor and cherish that gift. So I want people to know that every piece, it has substance, meaning and a story behind it. I hope they take something from my art that will change their lives as much as it has changed and evolved my life.”