The Art of Minnie Evans Driver: Creation of Ordered Art In A Disordered Environment

The Art of Minnie Evans Driver:
Creation of Ordered Art In A Disordered Environment
Jill A. Johnson
Course 612: History & Theory of Art Therapy
Unit 2: Outsider Art
Instructor: Penny Orr
WEU

Abstract
In this essay I will recount the history of an important outside artist of the 20th century who utilized art as a therapeutic tool to adapt to a difficult environment. Connections will be made between the artist and her art and; theories of Ellen Dissanayake, Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud, D.C. Geary, and R. Sapolsky, to demonstrate the use of self-taught art as an important means of adaptation and coping in difficult circumstances.
Keywords: art, therapy, artist, therapeutic, Minnie Evans Driver, Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud, Ellen Dissanayake, psychology, psychologist, theory, dream, symbolism, subconscious, collective, conscious, nurture, nature, order, self, adaptation, environment, spiritual, meditation, mandala,

The life of Minnie Evans Driver 1892-1987
In my estimation, the driving force behind the art of Minnie Driver consisted of an underlying impulse to create order and beauty in a life of harsh realities and disappointments. Her daily life consisted of hardships such as servile work, poverty, abandonment, and likely misunderstanding. Her circumstances would not have afforded her guidance or acceptance, but her art could afford and reward her.

According to Petullo, A. Collection of SELF-TAUGHT AND OUTSIDER ART. 2014, Minnie was born in a cabin in North Carolina to an impoverished fourteen-year-old servant who abandoned her to her Grandmother’s care when she was only 2 months old. Her Father also abandoned the family. Current research by Ellen Dissanayake would flag this situation as dangerous for a child developmentally, as we will see further on in this paper. Some of Ms. Driver’s ancestors were from Trinidad Africa, and were known to be strong women. This “strong” trait may have been passed on to Minnie, but it seems Minnie did not receive the nurturing necessary to a healthy development because she was forced to rely solely upon her own guidance for most of her young life. She attended school until the 6th grade, and then quit so she could work as a “caller”, selling shellfish on the street, to help what little family she had left.

It is, therefore, not surprising that Ms. Driver had frequent hallucinations which continued for most of her life and were likely due to the stressors of abandonment and poverty. I believe Ellen Dissanayake and any other psychologists mentioned in this paper would agree that we have a case of someone who was damaged at such a young and critical age that therapy would be difficult also. Ms. Driver also said she always remembered her dreams. Hallucinations were also often part of her waking hours, many times disorienting enough that reality and the subconscious became a blur. And maybe the vast intellect of dreams and hallucinations were serving a purpose of protecting her when reality became too much to bear. She kept her subconscious thoughts to herself, and it is doubtful someone in her position would have had the empathetic ear of a good supporter much less the psychologist she needed. I think in cases of mental breaks as these the mind “shields” itself with buffers of thoughts that are more tolerable than real life. Real life can be very inhumane, people do break under pressure. In this case, Jung refers to innate abilities of humans to connect with a more universal consciousness through these symbols (Jung), myth, and stories, she became strong enough to survive. I would refer to these hallucinations as is interesting though, that at 43 she chose art and symbolism as a means of expression which seemingly provided her mechanisms to cope with a harsh set of environmental circumstances.

Despite the lack of formal education, Minnie enjoyed reading history, mythology, and the bible (and was very steeped in the principles of Baptist faith). I believe the images she created later in her life arose partially at least from the mythology and symbolism she experienced in the dreams and hallucinations she kept so closely guarded.

Minnie did not start doing artwork until she was 43. Here we see a theme that was common in her paintings: florals, symbolism, and mythical looking creatures at times. She claimed she never planned her art, it just “came to her”. I am again reminded of Jung’s theories about self, mythology, universal consciousness, and the subconscious all at once. Here we also see similarity to works more often produced in India by gurus and mystics to which she likely had no exposure.

We will never know the full content of the vast amounts of dreams she claimed to remember. Minnie remembered all of her dreams. In my opinion, dreams are difficult to recall. I have an acquaintance who claims she does not ever remember dreams. If dreams are the untapped part of not less. This tells me she was dealing quite will with her subconscious in a society where the subconscious (Freud, Jung), I believe they deserve further attention and acknowledgement, natural impulses of the subconscious are denied and subjugated to such an extent that mental illness blooms. With her artwork we see a flower still blooming even through the abstraction.

Perhaps the reason she kept her hallucinations and dreams so closely guarded was the reality that the paintings resulting from her dreams and hallucinations would not be widely accepted in a society that could not understand the value of art as her coping mechanism. And it could be the case that her rearrangements of florals were actually recollections of dreams. I personally would have to rely on Photoshop (see comparative art above) to accomplish mandala-like artwork similar to hers. In our western culture, it is rare to see abstracted works such as these by any artist, much less an untrained woman artist with black heritage. Mandalas artwork tends to be accepted more readily in Indian and Asian cultures where the continuum of nature is a main ingredient in resultant spiritual beliefs and art. No doubt it was difficult at best for Minnie Evans Driver to fit into the narrow linear idea that so many Westerners subscribe to, that is, “good art” is “realistic” art.

We could also discuss the difficulties of women artists of the period, but to do so would be beyond the scope of this paper. We know she was a servant, and that we “ought to” treat people better. This story is heartbreaking to me. My beloved Grandmother and my Godmother were both hardworking Farmers and Housecleaners who could also be considered in the running at least for being the outside artists they were. We are Strong! I am a Farmer, an Artist, a Housecleaner. My Godmother says “You can hold your head up, UP!”, we are people who can say we have nothing to be ashamed of in our work or treatment of others (jilljj.com), but my own parallels with Ms. Driver are also beyond to scope of this paper.

If her art was of dreams, she was manifesting wish fulfillment (according to theory on interpretation of dreams by Sigmund Freud), then Ms. Driver was able to fulfill her wish through her dreams and art. It seems perfectly logical then, to guard oneself out of necessity. And this leads me to believe that she was using a form of meditation not unlike seasoned monks and seers, perhaps without knowing how important this universal connection with nature was. In any case, according to Jung’s theory of symbolism as I understand it, she was connecting to a universal consciousness and dealing with her subconscious dreams, which enabled her to find belonging so she could more fully “live” her life.

In my estimation, the driving force behind the art of Minnie Driver consisted of an underlying impulse to create order and beauty in a life of harsh realities and disappointments. Ms. Driver’s daily life consisted of hardships such as servile work, poverty, abandonment, and likely misunderstanding. Her circumstances would not have afforded her guidance or acceptance, but her art could afford and reward her.

Ellen Dissanayake speaks of the importance of the Mother-Child connection. It is therefore not surprising that Ms. Driver had frequent hallucinations due to the stressors of abandonment and poverty. It is interesting though, that she chose art and symbolism as a means of expression which seemingly provided her a coping mechanisms to cope with a harsh set of environmental circumstances. We will never know the full content of the vast amounts of dreams she claimed to remember. “I have never remembered sleeping without [dreaming].” The words of Minnie Evans from her 1998 exhibition at Luise Ross Gallery, New York If dreams are the untapped part of the subconscious (Freud, Jung), I believe they deserve further attention and acknowledgement, not less. This tells me she the subconscious are denied and subjugated to such an extent that mental illness blooms. With her artwork we see a flower still blooming even through the abstraction. She was dealing quite well with her subconscious in a society where the ascetic impulses of formalism did not allow her a voice.

Perhaps the reason she kept her hallucinations and dreams so closely guarded was the reality that the paintings resulting from her dreams and hallucinations would not be widely accepted in a society that could not understand the value of art as her coping mechanism. And it could be the case that her rearrangements of florals were actually recollections of dreams. I personally would have to rely on Photoshop (see comparative art above) to accomplish mandala-like artwork similar to hers. In our western culture, it is rare to see abstracted works such as these by any artist, much less an untrained woman artist. Mandalas artwork tends to be accepted more readily in Indian and Asian cultures where the continuum of nature is a main ingredient in resultant spiritual beliefs and art. No doubt it was difficult at best for Minnie Driver to fit into the narrow linear idea that so many Westerners subscribe to, that is, “good art” is “realistic” art. I hear art by Terry Redlin is “good” too, but have enough moxy to avoid further judgement.

If her art was of dreams, she was manifesting wish fulfillment then. Ms.Driver was able to fulfil her wishes through her dreams and art. It seems perfectly logical then, to guard oneself out of necessity. And this leads me to believe that she was using a form of meditation not unlike seasoned monks and seers, perhaps without knowing how important this universal connection with nature was. In any case, according to Jung’s theory of symbolism as in interpretation of dreams by Sigmund Freud, she was connecting to a universal consciousness and dealing with her subconscious dreams, which enabled her to find belonging so she could more fully “live” her life.

Ms. Evans got married just after her sixteenth birthday, and it seems the relationship was positive and strong. Minnie and her husband continued work as servants and had 3 sons. Likely due to the amount of responsibilities, Mrs. Driver did not start painting until she was 43 (not unlike my Grandma Alice) (jilljj.com/news). At that time she was working as a gatekeeper at an estate where she later sold some of her paintings. Let’s face it, we all have voices in our heads, and Minnie’ voice told her to “paint or die” (Evans Driver). I can relate. So can you.

About her paintings, Evans stated: “I have no imagination. I never plan a drawing. They just happen.”(2) I agree with her first statement. Her imagination was fueled by her dreams and memories though, I think. “As she began drawing compulsively, her family became concerned that she was losing her mind” (Evans). This behavior signals genius in my opinion and is something to be assisted and not insulted by ignorance. I’d guess her family had a tough time dealing with a woman taking charge of her own life. Her painting began to sell at the gatehouse where her work became noticed enough for her to finally be gaining exposure in major art galleries.
She retired in 1974. She worked for approximately 70 years altogether!

With the encouragement and assistance of her agent and friend, Evans work was widely exhibited. According to the exhibition catalogue Black Folk Artists: Minnie Evans and Bill Traylor from the African American Museum,

The Theory of Sapolsky
“Prolonged stress is known to compromise a wide range of bodily functions including energy release, immune system activity, mental activity, digestion, growth and tissue repair, and reproductive physiology and behavior. An individual’s perceived sense of coping with a provoking situation affects the degree of severity of the response and influences whether or not a stress disorder occurs (Sapolsky 1992). It seems Ms. Driver was severely impacted by stress disorders of hallucinations.

The Theory of Geary
It is adaptively advantageous for individuals to cope (or feel that they are coping) with circumstances that provoke stress (Geary 2005). I think Ms. Driver “coped” with her disadvantages through art and mythology.

The theory of Ellen Dissanayake
I suggest that ceremonies originated and persisted because the aesthetic operations (artifications) served, as in mother-infant interaction, to attract attention (to the matter of the ceremony), create, mold, and sustain emotion, coordinate body and brain rhythms, and—by doing all these—to provide in individuals and group… the feeling that they were coping. (Dissanayake). In addition to pointing out these practical benefits of the arts that were inherent in Pleistocene lives, this chapter has also described inborn aesthetic capacities that evolved to help individuals satisfy fundamental emotional needs. The problems that beset twenty- first century children and adults generally have to do with the five emotional needs described in section 5: feeling intimacy with one other person (mutuality), feeling that one is integral to a group and has an identity with regard to others (belonging), feeling physically and mentally capable to make one’s way in the world and to deal with the practical and social problems that arise (competence), feeling a sense of purpose and value in the world and in what one does (meaning), and being able to demonstrate regard for one’s life, showing oneself and others that one cares (artifying). Although these needs are largely fulfilled in societies of intimates in which ceremonial arts are prominent, they are easily neglected in complex, modern, pluralistic, highly technological, largely secular societies where art-filled ceremonies are fragmented and often disparaged and where there is more complex (and one might say “inhuman”) information to be acquired and mastered. It is not sufficiently realized that the arts can contribute to addressing these emotional needs. (Dissanayake). Ms. Driver exhibits a penchant for “ceremonial” and symbolic art, which probably helped her achieve a sense of society when her family could not provide one.

The Theories of Carl Jung
“My thesis then, is as follows: in addition to our immediate consciousness, which is of a thoroughly personal nature and which we believe to be the only empirical psyche (even if we tack on the personal unconscious as an appendix), there exists a second psychic system of a collective, universal, and impersonal nature which is identical in all individuals. This collective unconscious does not develop individually but is inherited. It consists of pre-existent forms, the archetypes, which can only become conscious secondarily and which give definite form to certain psychic contents.” Ms. Driver was fully aware of her dreams and hallucinations, making them a couscous part of her daily life.
The comparative method is the basic key to a symbolic understanding of mythology. Through it we discover certain patterns which recur in widely varying cultures separated by an immensity of both distance and time. Jung called these underlying patterns ‘archetypes’ from ‘arche’ meaning primordial, and ‘typos’ meaning typical. Archetypal images embody the most essential elements of the human experience and drama. They manifest both as powerful images, and as dynamic behavioral patterns. They are a repertoire of instinctive human functioning, analogous in our species to the instinctive impulse that impels, say, the Baltimore Oriole to build a beautiful teardrop nest, or Salmon to return to the streams of their birth. The generality of these images result from recurrent reactions of human beings to situations and stimuli of the same general order, repeated over thousands of years. It was through Ms. Driver’s understanding of mythological images she was able to manifest art.
The archetypal images represent several basic stages of the life drama symbolized by the Hero myth. They lead from an initial stage of unconsciousness before the ego has awakened, through various stages of heroic struggle, to a final state of ‘wholeness’ or integration when life has reached its full potential and a relationship between the human and divine has been reestablished. Jung called this process ‘individuation,’ the process of becoming the true individual that one really is. This ‘true self’ Jung felt to be the dynamic factor in the unconscious of each individual. It represents the central archetype of order and wholeness among the other archetypes. Jung called it the Self.” Although Ms Driver was not afforded psychological treatment of her breaks, she found her way through life by utilizing mythology and art her own form of self-therapy.

Conclusion
In my estimation, the driving force behind the art of Minnie Driver consisted of an underlying impulse to create order and beauty in a life of harsh realities and disappointments. Ms. Driver’s daily life consisted of hardships such as servile work, poverty, abandonment, and likely misunderstanding. Her circumstances would not have afforded her guidance or acceptance, but her art could afford and reward her.

References
Dissanayake, Ellen. In The Beginning: Pleistocene And Infant Aesthetics And Twenty-First Century Education In The Arts International Handbook of Research in Arts Education, ed. Liora Bressler, Chapter 53, Vol. 2 (2007), 783-798.
Freud, Sigmund. http://.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Interpretation_of_Dreams (2014)
Freud, Sigmund The Interpretation of Dreams the Illustrated Edition, Sterling Press, 2010, pages 9-68
Geary, D. C. (2005). Folk knowledge and academic learning. In B. J. Ellis & D. F. Bjorklund (Eds.), Origins of the social mind: evolutionary psychology and child development (pp. 493-519). New York: Guilford.
C. G. Jung, The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious (London 1996) p. 43
C. G. Jung, Man and his Symbols (London 1978) p. 57
Kalshed, D., Jones, A., C.J. Jung Foundation For Analytical Psychology, Inc. The Evolution of Consciousness.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Man_and_His_Symbols
Petullo, A. Collection of SELF-TAUGHT AND OUTSIDER ART. 2014
Sapolsky, R. (1992). Neuroendocrinology of the stress response. In J. R. Becker, S. M. Breedlove, & D. Crews (Eds.), Behavioral Endocrinology (pp. 287-324). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.