Copper Bird’s Bottle Chapel

Jun 24, 2021 | 2019 Fall - Growing Older

By Kate Griffin

A tribute to Virginia Wright-Frierson and Minnie Evans (1892 -1987)

A versatile and prolific artist, Virginia Wright-Frierson was a painter, sculptor, muralist, illustrator, printmaker, and author. She designed and installed the gift of a mural on the atrium ceiling at Columbine High School, in the year following the shootings there in 1999.

In 2003, she won a competition to create a memorial in the once private Airlie Gardens in Wilmington, N.C., to honor the outsider artist Minnie Evans. She then selected and managed a team of seven artists each of whom created a sculpture. Wright-Frierson’s creation was a stunning chapel made of various colored bottles, set in mortar over rebar and treated wood posts, to form a seven-sided chapel measuring 17 feet high and 17 feet across in all directions. The chapel is lit at night giving the effect of huge stained-glass windows. This work, outside in all kinds of weather, took one year.

When Airlie Gardens was purchased by W.A. Corbett in 1948, Minnie Evans—an African American woman—was hired as the gatekeeper. She sat in a small house at the gate until 1974 and sold admission tickets to the garden. She began to have visions, mostly religious, which became pieces of art which she hung on the front gate of the gardens and sold for 50 cents each. Then, in 1962, Nina Howell Starr became fascinated by her work and began acting as her agent. She publicized Minnie’s work, and never took a commission, for the next 25 years. She arranged numerous exhibits including a major exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1975.

Now I tell you, that Ginny woman
Done a marvelous job building me a temple
She got my vibes, she loved colors
Same as I did.
But the bottles she used didn’t have
A thousand colors like my paints did.
An ya know, she didn’t put a roof
On it! First look I thought
That was bad wrong
But now I like it.
The sky’s the limit!
And that Artist Woman was not
Your ordinary “Southern Lady”
All caught up in makin’ quilts
And cooking dinners and so on…
She had some kind of connection
To—what? God maybe.
You see, as she was finishin’ up
She built this little altar in it.
And I made my spirit into
A copper colored bird that
Did’n belong in North Carolina.
But my family was there!
You see, a copper tree with copper birds
Was sticking up out of the house!
Sometimes I sat with my family there.
An when the gardens slowly grew quiet
I’d hop down on the altar and
Just preach and praise the beauty!
One day I was hanging out
On the tree, and she herself
Came up quietly and stopped
A few feet back from me!
I just stayed still and quiet.
No preachin’; no praisin’
Another woman walked up
And spoke to Miz Ginny.
She told her that the Bottle Chapel
Was the closest thing she’d seen
To the beauty of Chartres Cathedral—
Way over in that country France—
With all them stained glass windows.
Then she saw me an’ said
“What an unusual bird, but beautiful.”
An Ginny said “Yes, it does not belong
In this region, and I think it’s the
Spirit of Minnie Evans!
I find it sitting on the altar
Many times when I come to work.” And so she knew.
Like I tole you, she had a
Connection to something
That give her more than her
Joy and talent so often
Making others amazed and joyful.

Kate Griffin has had many different careers including diplomat in two African countries and Director of the Berlin School of Languages in Versailles, France. Returning to the states in 1989, she taught for several years at Tuskegee University and then entered the private sector.

Minnie Evans’ artwork

Kate Griffin

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