The story behind the bottle chapel at Airlie Gardens

The story behind the bottle chapel at Airlie Gardens

Minnie Evans Bottle Chapel at Airlie Gardens.
Minnie Evans Bottle Chapel at Airlie Gardens.

If you’ve ever been to Airlie Gardens in Wilmington, then chances are you’ve seen the beautiful bottle chapel, composed of somewhere between 2,000 and 4,000 bottles, surrounded by angel sculptures and mosaics.

Sure, it’s obviously beautiful, but do you know the story of why it’s there and who it represents?

The bottle chapel, which opened to the public in 2004, honors Minnie Evans, who worked as the Airlie Gardens gatekeeper from 1949 to 1974.

(Source: Airlie Gardens)
(Source: Airlie Gardens)

At 43 years old Evans said she had a dream in which a voice told her to “draw or die”.

So on Good Friday in 1935, she did her first drawing.

Janine Powell, Director of Donor Relations at Airlie Gardens says Minnie drew inspiration for her drawings from her religion as well as from the gardens.

“You see a lot of mystical figures, a lot of angels. She loved symmetry,” Powell said. “And later in life she was really inspired by the gardens themselves and the colors and the blooms.”

Minnie would often give away her paintings and drawings to the garden’s guests for free.

Angel sculpture at the Minnie Evans Bottle Chapel at Airlie Gardens.
Angel sculpture at the Minnie Evans Bottle Chapel at Airlie Gardens.

In the 1960’s, Minnie’s artwork caught the attention of Nina Howell Starr who was a graduate photography student. Starr became Evans’s de facto agent and would travel to see Minnie frequently and showed her work at New York galleries.

Over the years Minnie’s artwork has been displayed in the Cameron Art Museum, The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the North Carolina Museum of Art, and more.

Minnie passed away in 1987 at the age of 95.

In the early 2000’s, Airlie Gardens decided they wanted to do something to honor her legacy.

Virginia Wright-Frierson came up with the idea for the bottle chapel.

Janine Powell says the chapel took about a year to finish completely.

Surrounding the chapel are angle sculptures by Dumay Gorham, clay sculptures from Hiroshi Sueyoshi – the former artist in residence at the Cameron Art Museum, mosaics by Brooks Koff, and ceramic sculptures by Tejuola Turner.

More than 120,000 people visit the gardens each year and a lot come specifically to see the Minnie Evans bottle chapel.

Powell says she hopes Minnie is proud of the garden that honors her.

“Minnie wasn’t a formally trained artist and so I think her story is so inspirational because she picked up the pen and started doing her artwork at the age of 43,” Powell said. “It’s never too late to start and you can always find inspiration in the beauty that’s around you.”


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