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The miracle that was Gullah artist Allen Fireall: Poem and remembrance

“The music of your vision and purpose came early,
composing your destiny while you were still a boy.
Laughing at how sweetly the muse kissed your dreams.”
--from the poem Gullah-Gospel Griot Allen Fireall

The recently-passed renowned Gullah artist Allen Fireall of Savannah, Georgia.
The recently-passed renowned Gullah artist Allen Fireall of Savannah, Georgia. Postered Poetics

What would you call it if you heard about an artist who had been declared legally blind and whose heart had lost the greater percentage of its strength but whom somehow continued to produce masterful paintings in brilliantly-colored detail? The word miracle may not be too extreme at all and it certainly should not be ruled out in the case of Gullah artist Allen Franklin Fireall, who passed away in Savannah, Georgia, on March 31, 2014.

Fireall described himself as an “artist historian” who dedicated his talents to preserving the culture and history of his people. In that sense, his work might be described as historical realism. The images he produced support that assessment in bold hues depicting scenes from African-American island and rural life in the Southeast.

Populating his canvases were: men hoeing row crops, women and men working beside each other harvesting collard greens, people gathered at a lake or river to be baptized, couples enjoying leisurely strolls on the beach, solitary brides in rowboats on their way to get married, fishermen making and casting nets, women sewing quilts, and men in barber shops playing checkers.

In his earlier stronger days, Fireall produced 10 to 15 medium and large-sized canvases every month. They found their way into collections across the globe through outlets in downtown Savannah and festivals and exhibitions throughout the Low Country. They were sometimes lyrically humorous and at other times poignantly sad. What made them miraculous in either case during his final years was that he continued to produce work at all after diabetes robbed him of his sight and a failing heart withered his strength.

A Gullah Art Pioneer

Fireall’s decision to commit such images to the canvas came just as many African Americans during the 1980s began to move from the southeast islands that had been occupied by their ancestors during slavery and after the Civil War. The slow pace of economic development at the time left many feeling they had little choice except to seek opportunities elsewhere. Fireall was among the first visual artists to recognize the uniqueness of the Gullah experience with its intact “Africanisms” and, like author and Daufuskie Island native Sallie Ann Robinson, strive to ensure its documentation.

Prior to the work that Fireall began to produce (along with artists such as Diane Britton Dunham, Jonathan Green, Leroy Campbell, and other notable talents) the term Gullah art generally referred to basket weaving, making nets, sewing quilts, or cooking. Painted records of Gullah culture in a manner similar to Jacob Lawrence’s depictions of the Great Migration during the Harlem Renaissance was something new. In that regard, Fireall was a pioneer whose authentic creative vision has influenced many.

A Gullah-Gospel Griot

A ceremony in celebration of Allen Fireall’s life will be held Saturday, April 5, 11 a.m., at the Williams and Williams Funeral Home Chapel in Savannah. The following poem is presented in tribute to the great artist:

Gullah-Gospel Griot Allen Fireall
(1/23/1954-3/31/2014)

Colors–– sang sonnets to your eyes determined
to focus on what you saw with your soul,
guided by the light of your Gullah-song genius.

Gullah-Gospel Griot painting his love for his people

The music of your vision and purpose came early,
composing your destiny while you were still a boy.
Laughing at how sweetly the muse kissed your dreams.

Gullah-Gospel Griot shining earth prayers for his people

Ancestors dancing through chained darkness of days past
guided your hands to shape their stories
into yam-sweet legacies for the years and tears to come.

Gullah-Gospel Griot reclaiming the beauty ignorance corrupted

A Black Son of these golden southern shores,
within your brush the ocean hid treasures
suddenly revealed with every miraculous stroke.

Gullah-Gospel Griot painting his love for his people

You captured, lived, and made a gift of wonders,
like an ancient star collapsing one night into shadow…
and the next day exploding flame, and chromatic song.

by Aberjhani
author of The River of Winged Dreams
and The American Poet Who Went Home Again

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