For anyone who knows American folk art, Airlie Gardens means something more; it was the inspiration for the vibrant, colorful, and intricate paintings of Minnie Evans.
Evans came to Wilmington with her mother in 1893, when she was a year old. Her mother remarried a man who was employed by Pembroke Jones, a wealthy industrialist, and by the age of 17 Minnie found work as a domestic in the Jones household. Jones’ wife, Sarah Green Jones, was the one who established Airlie Gardens. From 1948 to 1974 Minnie was the gatekeeper at Airlie, collecting admissions and selling her artwork. She painted her delicate and fantastical scenes as a result of a divine vision when in a dream god told she must paint or die. Her art works depict angel and ornately adorned figures but the art work clearly evokes the lushness and greenery of the garden setting that she saw every day. She once said, â€œGod has some 600 shades of green, and He dressed the world with them.â€ To her the natural surroundings were a divine revelation, as one can readily see in her painting displayed in the Fenimore Art Museum collection dedicated to Minnie and or at special showings at the Cameron Museum of Art in Wilmington.
Minnie sold her artwork at Airlie, and had her first â€œexhibitionsâ€ there, spreading her paintings on the lawn at the gates entrance offering many for only fifty cents or a dollar. She died in 1987, but her work is so connected with the site that local artists created a memorial sculpture garden within Airlie in her honor. Bottle Chapel, sculptures and its garden were constructed in 2004 and has become a central feature to the gardens, popular with many visitors.