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Tuesday May 17th

Irene Tison tells Gullah stories through her colorful paintings

Artist Irene Tison's artwork will be on display at until Jan. 4. Courtesy of Irene Tison.
Buy Photos Artist Irene Tison's artwork will be on display at until Jan. 4. Courtesy of Irene Tison.

The Alliance for Historic Hillsborough is collaborating with Mike’s Art Truck to display Irene Tison’s newest collection “Low Country Life." The 22-painting collection will be on display in the Alexander Dickson House, the building that houses the Hillsborough Visitors Center from Nov. 10  through Jan. 4.

Tison grew up in a low-country southern coastal Carolina town. She feels deep connections with her heritage and the Gullah people, which she conveys through her paintings. The Gullah are African-Americans who strive to maintain much of their African heritage, and generally live in costal areas of the South. 

“I paint about ordinary people doing ordinary things,” Tison said. “I grew up on a farm, and I paint stories my parents told me or stories I remember. I do a lot of church paintings.”

While Tison paints stories of her experiences, she also paints the women that most influenced her life as she was growing up.

“The women were the backbone of the church,” Tison said. “I grew up around strong women. I paint them with their hats, their gloves and their dress, and, to me, these ladies, even though they were doing ordinary things, they were extraordinary women. When I dress them up, it's out of respect because this is how they carried themselves every day in my eyes.”

Tison started painting and sketching when she was young to mimic her mother. It was not until she was 40 that she quit her job as a receptionist and started to pursue her artwork as a career.

Tison said she strives to convey the lives of the Gullah people.

“People living next to nothing but living extraordinary,” Tison said. “Taking in what they had because you didn’t have much. They took what they had and made it work, and that is what I want people to see in my paintings. A working community. A community together, bonding together, helping each other out.”

Tison’s work classifies as folk because of the stories and history that she is able to convey through her paintings. Karen Mack of Mike’s Art Truck speaks of the importance of folk art to the community.

“Folk art is simple and whimsical and colorful for the most part,” Mack said. “I think the stories are really powerful and moving. The art is very eclectic among the entire group of people we work with, and the artists are all unique, and it's very interesting to see the humanity of it all.”

Sarah DeGennaro, executive director of the Alliance for Historic Hillsborough, shares the same sentiments.

“All art is worth being exposed to, but I do feel like it's pretty fantastic that my organization, Alliance for Historic Hillsborough — our mission is to inspire visitor and residents to experience historic Hillsborough,” DeGennaro said. “We also want visitors and residents to experience authentic Hillsborough. Folk art is authentic and really fulfills our mission and sort of highlights some of the unique culture we’re interested in.”

Along with including a narrative, Tison’s paintings include an abundance of color.

“My work is colorful, I know it’s colorful — color is in my paintings,” Tison said. “Whatever mood I’m in that day is whatever I’m feeling and I'll paint it. They will come out really beautiful.”

Folk art gives Tison and other artists who paint in this style room to fully express themselves.

“When you do folk art,” Tison said, “You are giving a raw natural part of yourself.”

Mike’s Art Truck gives artists like Tison the opportunity to showcase and share their work.

"We found it inspiring and moving that people seem to have an artist inside of them that hasn’t come to public notice,” Mack said. "I think self-taught artists resonate with the public, and in some respects, all of us have little bit of artist in us or know someone who does. It is a liberating feeling that no matter what your station in life, you can express yourself and have it seen and appreciated by other people.”


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