By Kathleen Vanesian
By Amy Silverman
By Robrt L. Pela
By Jim Louvau
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By Benjamin Leatherman
By New Times
By Becky Bartkowski
You can't miss the funky, Thirties motor court next to Shep's Liquor on Main Street in downtown Cottonwood. Hallucinogenic folk art on its front porch makes your head swirl and throb, like a recurrent acid flashback. Someone has turned the first four units into an artist's studio, but often, there's a sign telling people not to bother knocking unless they're serious collectors or previous buyers.
The motor court is the home and workplace of Andrew S., who prefers not to use his last name, because "in AA, they consider using your last name as having an ego problem." In it, he turns out an amazing array of folk art that has attracted collectors from all over the country.
Six feet two, with a bushy, salt-and-pepper beard, generous eyebrows, no demonstrable front teeth and a piercing stare, Andrew, who is approaching 60, looks like a retired pirate. He has a somewhat misanthropic attitude, as indicated by the sign; he doesn't like either browsers or publicity. This is the first interview Andrew has ever granted. Until moving from Pennsylvania to Cottonwood three years ago, he jealously guarded his privacy--and the truth about the paintings he sometimes agrees to sell. For seven years, Andrew S. has been making art under the name Sallie Lou P. (for "Petunia") Eakins. Serious folk-art collectors from around the country have avidly added Sallie Lou's work to their prized possessions. Many still believe that Sallie Lou is a real person; others have discovered just recently that she is a figment of Andrew S.' fertile imagination.
Sallie Lou, the mysterious woman who has signed all of the paintings and lavishly decorated objects artfully crammed into Andrew's tiny studio-cum-home, is his illusory, artistic alter ego. She is, says Andrew, part black, part Indian and part French, his imaginary "wife," whose flamboyant personal history is as exotic as the black folk art she has created. Andrew, who is decidedly white, is Sallie Lou, and vice versa.
How much of Sallie Lou's story is pure fantasy and how much, if any, might contain threads of truth is uncertain. In any event, the mythology surrounding Sallie Lou is just as fascinating as the work that she has produced--maybe even more so.
@body:Andrew confides that Sallie Lou's name is a numerologically auspicious amalgam of parts of friends' names, including that of a Seminole therapist. According to the baroque history that Andrew has created for his female alter ego, Sallie Lou's grandmother was a Seminole princess. "As the story goes," Andrew begins, "Sallie Lou was born in Decatur, Alabama, which is a headquarters for the Ku Klux Klan. Her mother and father went to a New Year's celebration and on the way back, their car stalled on a railroad track just as a train was bearing down, and they were both killed.
"So Sallie Lou's aunt came and got their ten kids and took them down to New Orleans, so she was raised in New Orleans. When she was a teenager of 16 years old, she went to junior college in Texas, where she met a guy by the name of William Eakins and she got married. She had twins. She was very pregnant. She had to leave school, and she went to Reno, Nevada, where William thought she was going to get a divorce. But, instead, she got a job with a wealthy industrialist. She was also busy raising her two sons, twin boys.
"Well, over the years, Sallie Lou went from Reno, Nevada, to Sacramento, then to San Francisco. When she was in San Francisco, the wealthy industrialist died and left her millions, close to 50 million bucks. She left San Francisco and went to Vegas, where she met this guy and had another child. Now, she didn't want the child, because she already had two twins, so she gave it to a couple to raise, along with a million dollars. From Las Vegas, Sallie Lou went back to the East Coast and, in every big town she went to, she met some guy, got married, had a child, gave the child away and a million dollars with it. When she got back to Pennsylvania, she was broke. . . ."
So, Andrew says, Sallie Lou began to paint to pay the bills.
The resulting work shows that Sallie Lou is no minimalist; she covers every square inch of her canvases, the found objects she obsessively transforms and sometimes even the paintings' frames. But her cheerfully primitive style belies the work's provocative subject matter.
Closer inspection reveals disquieting details: Little penises float through one piece, a black Adam and Eve with alarmingly enlarged genitalia cavort in another, a bowl sports a tropical scene of Indian maidens floating in water while eating watermelons.
Andrew has meticulously catalogued the bulk of Sallie Lou's work in a thick album containing photos of each painting with its title, date of production and a description of the person who bought the piece.
"I created Sallie Lou seven years ago," explains the artist, as he slowly turns the pages of the album, "because I wanted to do something different. I was doing other types of painting--almost photographic realism--and my eyes were getting bad. I had jotted down 50 ideas I had for weird paintings, so I started with seven of them. "They were very strange and most were Biblical: Adam and Eve, Adam and Eve being expelled from Eden, Moses and the Ten Commandments, the Last Supper, Jonah and the Whale. "The only thing is, I decided right away that I didn't want the people in the paintings to be white, because we have no photograph proving that Adam and Eve were white or that Christ was white or that anybody else back then was white. We have no photographic record, so how do we know?