The Unique Genius of Gullah Artist Allen Fireall

Artist Allen Fireall at Red Piano Too Art Gallery. (photo by Victoria Smalls)

Artist Allen Fireall at Red Piano Too Art Gallery. (photo by Victoria Smalls)

 

When considering that an artist for the past twenty years has been producing and selling more than 100 original paintings per year, it becomes difficult to think of the individual as one of the South’s best kept brilliant secrets. Yet, despite the fact that he was selected one of the "top five collectible artists in the region" by Coastal Arts and Antiques Magazine and that his work was featured in a major Hollywood film, a brilliant secret is exactly what the extraordinarily prolific painter Allen Fireall is.

 

Even more challenging to believe is the idea that Fireall, represented in such well-established facilities as Friedman’s Fine Art in Savannah, Georgia, and Red Piano Too, on South Carolina’s St. Helena Island, should find his gift and livelihood threatened by the onset of diabetes. His rise as an artist has been lifelong one. The battle with diabetes began when he was diagnosis in 2007 after visiting a doctor to find out why his vision seemed at times to go dim or blur. Like many who experience diabetic symptoms before realizing they are indeed symptoms, the artist learned he actually had been suffering unknowingly from the disease for several years.

 

Rather than sending him spiraling into a state of depression, the news spurred him on to produce prize-winning works adapted as posters for the 2008 and 2009 Hilton Head Island Gullah Celebration. In addition, Fireall himself was elected the event’s 2008 Featured Artist of the Year.

Not one to "go gently into that good night," Fireall underwent one laser surgery for his eyes in 2007 and two more in 2009. As with any major surgery, the possibility of a negative outcome was as great as that of a positive one and he simply had to wait each time to see what the impact would be. Time brought degrees of healing and he chose not to allow his battle to retain his vision to prevent him from fulfilling his role as "an artist historian," which in his case means an artist who uses his talent to document the history and culture of African Americans in the U.S. Southeast.

Because he was raised in part by grandparents Pearl and Nathan Bentley, in an area just outside Hardeeville, South Carolina,  Fireall became very familiar with the community of African Americans known as Gullah, descendants of former slaves who during and after the Civil War occupied a series of islands just off the southern U.S. coast. That familiarity endows his work with a very rich perspective. It reflects the kind of authentic "black folk art" sensibility rarely seen in modern art because he is among those artists who actually lived through many of the experiences seen on his canvasses in contrast to someone who may have simply read about them.

"For a long time I struggled with being identified as a Gullah artist," the painter admits somewhat ironically. "My grandparents raised me and they spoke the Gullah language. We used to laugh at the way they spoke but when I became grown I understood the importance of preserving the language and the culture."

 

In his more Gullah-influenced works are scenes such as the famous "Gullah Bride," which features a beautifully yet slightly tattered dressed woman sitting alone in a boat with the island of Daufuskie resting serenely in the background. The image was beguiling enough to capture the attention of the producers of Nights in Rodanthe, who used it and several other works by Fireall to lend atmosphere to the film. Other more distinctly Gullah-influenced works include his popular series of net throwers, in many ways reminiscent of the historic pictures in photo-essay books by the late Jack Leigh.  

More urban-defined canvases depict: scenes of women crowned with uniquely-poised hats or draped in southern-style designer-chic clothes; men in blues clubs or hunched over a checker board; children accompanying parents on their way to church Sunday mornings; and, particularly important to his role as an artist historian, images of storefronts, street corners, and neighborhoods throughout Savannah.

 

Please click this link to read Part 2: The Birth of an Artist

By Aberjhani

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