Rev. Johnnie F. Simmons

Gullah Woodburning

Photo courtesy Margaret Day Allen

Photo courtesy Margaret Day Allen

One of the out-of-state artists will be the Rev. Johnnie Simmons, who lives near Beaufort, S.C. He grew up on St. Helena Island, just off the coast of South Carolina, where the Gullah culture was a way of life.

Gullah refers to the unique culture of African-Americans who lived on the remote islands off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia. Until recently, many of these islands could only be reached by ferry. The ancestors of the Gullah people were enslaved persons brought to the islands to work on large plantations. After the end of slavery, many remained in the area, forming their own communities that retained much of their African culture and language. The Gullah language or dialect is a mixture of English and various African languages. Although this way of life is now largely a thing of the past, a few people such as Simmons still remember these unique communities.

Simmons did not set out to become an artist. Instead, he worked a variety of jobs, including serving as a minister at a local church and driving a school bus. He has always enjoyed mentoring local children and youth, raising his own children and also leading church youth groups.

To help preserve the Gullah culture, he creates artworks that show scenes from his childhood. He takes a wooden panel, burns a picture into the wood with a wood-burning tool, and then enhances it with paint. Many of these scenes depict everyday life, such as fishing and hunting for food. Others depict local people or important moments. For example, he sometimes paints a picture of a car owned by his grandparents that was one of the first cars on the island. Some of his artwork also depicts the Penn Center, originally founded as a school by the Quakers to educate the newly freed slaves and their descendants. The Penn Center exists today as a museum and cultural heritage site. On most of his pieces, Simmons includes a brief description in the Gullah language. Since it was never a written language, he writes the language as it would sound when spoken.

Simmons’ artwork has been recognized in a South Carolina public television program and is included in the book When the Spirit Speaks: Self-Taught Art of the South by local author Margaret Day Allen.

Simmons is one of many artists who will be selling their artwork at the festival in downtown Newton. More information about the participating artists, and other festival information, may be found on the website and the festival’s Facebook page.

Charlie & Susan Frye, and Minnie Pearl

Folk Keepers Gallery & Antiques

Charlie Frye of Lenoir, N.C., is one of the artists who will be returning to the festival this year. Entirely self-taught, he has received regional recognition and was recently accepted into the prestigious Kentuck Festival of the Arts in Northport, Ala. He and his wife, Susan, own and operate Folk Keepers Art Gallery & Antiques in Lenoir, where they sell their own art and that of other southern folk artists.

Frye is easy to spot with his full beard, ponytail and paint-spattered overalls. His outgoing personality attracts friends from all walks of life. Frye drives a painted art truck, Minnie Pearl, named for the country comedian who was known for wearing a hat with the price tag still attached.

At age 25, Frye began making his self-described Appalachian folk art, which is heavily influenced by his early experiences. He said his parents used to own a building supply store near Lenoir where old men gathered and told tall tales. As a boy, Frye loved to listen, soaking up their stories of the old days. Many of the subjects of his art today are composites of those men, and many of the scenes reflect their stories. As a teen, Frye began driving truckloads of lumber up to mountain top building sites. The scenery he saw during those trips also made a lasting impression.

“The things you don’t notice now will be your inspiration later,” he said in describing his artistic influences. Some of his most popular subjects include smiling pigs who seem to be posing for a photo, strutting rosters, musicians, farmers, wide-eyed raccoons and owls, wise and funny goats, and other Appalachian scenes. Frye encourages other folk artists to apply to the Foothills Folk Art Festival, saying they will experience a warm welcome from the festival’s many helpful volunteers.