''Paint, or die!'' the voice instructed her in a vision, and she took up an old board that had been discarded in a trash pile and began to draw. ''I never did nothing as hard and as terrible as that in all of my life. For hours I worked. Oh, what a terrible condition I was in. My husband said, 'Minnie, how you feel? What's the matter? I want to know, what ails you?' The children say they didn't know I was their mother. I had changed in looks or some kind of thing.''
Minnie Evans made her first drawing in 1935. More than forty years later, her pictures have been exhibited in the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of American Folk Art, Portal Gallery in London, and in other galleries and museums, including St. John's Art Gallery in her own city of Wilmington, North Carolina. Art critics have called her a ''surrealist'' and ''mystic'' and ''primitive'' and have written about the paintings for academic journals and national newsmagazines. Her life is the subject of a PBS documentary, and she has been included in a half-dozen books on American artists.
She was born in rural Pender County, on the coast of North Carolina, and like most Southern blacks, learned her Bible ''by heart.'' The books of Ezekiel, Samuel, and Revelation in particular influenced her visions, translated them into figures of angels, prophets, and emperors. Fixed eyes appear among the vines and tangles of lush foliage. Green animals with wings, serpents and birds, sun and stars, make up the symmetrical designs of her bright pictures. These compelling images have the same kind of allegorical power as those of William Blake's drawings and engravings. Indeed, some of the same Biblical stories which inspired Blake inspired Minnie Evans - Ezekiel's vision of the Chariot of God and the New Jerusalem. She has often dreamed that she was in a chariot pulled by lions and driven by a man in a white robe, like the white raiment mentioned so often in Revelation. In the dream she is taken down the street to a pool of water, ''but it was water and it wasn't water.'' In it swims a ''great long white fish,'' perhaps a fish like Blake's in ''Images of Mortality.
Her art was first recognized in 1960 when Nina Howell Starr, a New York photographer and art critic, saw her work. For most of her life, Mrs. Evans had worked in other trades, as a ''sounder'' selling fish from the Wrightsville Sound, as a housekeeper, and from 1948 until 1974 as the gatekeeper on an estate known as Airlie Gardens and open to the public. After Mrs. Starr became her representative and arranged for her first showing in New York in 1966, the pictures of Minnie Evans - in pencil, crayon, watercolor, and oil - began to be studied by art critics. Some have probed her life for sources; one suggests that we understand the imagery in terms of an African and Caribbean heritage. But it seems more likely that her influences are from the gardens of her own locale in North Carolina, especially from Airlie.
Until recently, Mrs. Evans has lived with her son, George, and his wife in a small apartment filled sometimes with five generations. Grandchildren and young great-grandchildren came in and out of the room. But she had a way of removing herself from this immediate world, transfixing her gaze in another place.
''I love people to a certain extent,'' she has said, ''but sometimes I want to get off in the garden to talk with God. . . . Art is a mystery. I didn't have no idea it was like it is. It is so particular. It's a great mystery. When I start a picture, I don't know no more what I'm going to do than you do. When I make a picture the time comes for me to put in an eye, and I look and say, 'Oh, I got to go!' I have a granddaughter. She's a good copier. I can't copy after nobody, what somebody else done. I can't even copy my own. I have made nobody's else's pictures. I'm without a teacher. I've had some of my friends tell me, 'Well, Minnie, if you had been able to go to college or to a university' I say, 'Where 'bout? What college?' No college in the world, no university in the world can teach Minnie Evans, cause they don't know what to teach me. I went and got the book out of the library that the horses was in to look at to see - after I had started a horse - did I need it, but I couldn't do nothing with it. I had to put the book back. My mind was telling me how a horse looked and just go ahead.
''God showed me about painting that picture. So I started on it. I was at it all day long. I didn't finish it that day. There was some prophets, I called them, up in the air. They wasn't angels, but they were floating in the air like balloons. And I sit there and watched them, and they were singing some of the most prettiest songs. I dream about so much music, but I never see it. I just hear it.
''My Bible tells me, forget the past. Look forward to a higher calling. The world is filled with darkness. Because we are so unkind, so many gods, so many creeds, so many paths that wind and wind. While just the art of being kind is all the sad world needs. That's right. All the sad world needs.''
When Minnie Evans looks at her pictures, she is talking about her dreams and about Airlie; she seems to have no interest in what critics have written about her in books. In her presence visitors are filled with a sense of mystery, and it is mystery which ultimately is revealed in her paintings and drawings.
Under a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Mrs. Wilson and Susan Mullally have written and photographed ''Hope and Dignity: Older Black Women of the South.'' It will be published next summer by Temple University Press.m