CLEAN, SOBER AND STANGE

A NORTHERN ARIZONA FOLK ARTIST REVEALS HIS ALTER EGO

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.

@rule:
@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?

"And I wanted to appeal to a bigger crowd of people than just white people. I wanted to appeal universally, so I made some of the people in the paintings black, some of them were Mexican and Indian, some Asian, but mostly, I made them black.

"My lawyer said that since I had already signed thousands of paintings with my real name, in order to keep those paintings from being devalued, I should use a fictitious name."
Thus was spawned Sallie Lou's bizarre Biblical series, stylistically naive and filled with almost fluorescent color. But these were paintings with a decided twist. Tapping his finger on one of the photographs in the album, Andrew recalls:

"One of the first paintings was 'Moses and the Ten Commandments,' with Moses coming down from the mountain in a red-and-white robe; down below is the Golden Calf, and all the people with wine goblets worshiping the false idol at the foot of the mountain are members of the KKK, dressed in multicolored, pointy-hooded robes. And here's Moses holding the Ten Commandments, only he's a powerful black man with an Afro." In "Walking on Water: Welcome to Forsyth County Where Black Is Beautiful" (This county is big Klan country"), a black Jesus Christ walks on water, to the amazement of black fishermen and disgruntled KKK observers.

After completing a number of Biblical pieces, Andrew, a.k.a. Sallie Lou, became obsessed with African-American history, researching its every aspect, including the civil rights movement. Thus was born the Black History series: "Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad" (I did about 20 of these, and every one is different"); "Is This the House?", depicting Klan members about to cheerfully burn a cross on a neighborhood lawn (This happens in Pennsylvania all the time"); and "Montgomery, Alabama Going to Little Rock, Arkansas With Klan on Top," a very loose version of the Rosa Parks story, including miniature Klan members riding on the top of a bus.

Imagination unchained, Andrew-as-Sallie Lou produced ever more pointed work. Photographs in the album show black children at Halloween dressed for trick-or-treating in Klan robes, Snow Black and the Seven Dwarfs (with the wicked Klan Queen offering her poison apple), black Amish children skipping rope (a phenomenon that has no basis in reality), a Thanksgiving Day feast at which black people sit side by side with hooded Klan figures (How it could be with Klan and blacks together"). The artist paid little attention to historical time frames, cultural taboos or political fashion, letting his mind rove and connect in unexpected ways. A series of ark pieces appeared, including a Victorian Ark and a Paddlewheel Ark.

"Then I went into doing what I call the 'Klan Quilt' paintings," Andrew explains, while seeking out the appropriate picture, "where I had black ladies quilting hooded Klan figures on the quilt they all worked on together." "Wednesday Night Quilting Night at the Klan Meeting House--Only in America," part of this series, depicted Klansmen, peaked hoods hanging on a side wall, sewing watermelon slices onto their quilt.

Sources of inspiration lurked everywhere for Sallie Lou--radio, television, newspapers. Even the 1988 Democratic convention provided grist for Sallie Lou's creative mill. "I remember watching Jesse Jackson during the convention talking about his mother's burning quilt, so I made this painting," the artist recalls. "In it, there's Bentsen with his tennis racket, there's Dukakis and there's Jackson with his mother's quilt, which is a United States shaped like a watermelon and it's burning.

"Then there was one with Jesse, as ambassador to the world, with the Rainbow Coalition, standing on a Sunkist lemon world in an American-flag tutu. "This was just something I heard on television, and right away, I could see it. The way I paint, I can see this whole thing in my head before I paint--then I just start. If I can't see it in my head, I don't paint."
@rule:
@body:Collectors from New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C., including rich doctors and even one Catholic archbishop, bought the work from Andrew, who would trek weekly to a flea market near his home in Pennsylvania to hawk Sallie Lou's paintings. They bought, as well, the elaborate story the artist had dreamed up about the paintings' fascinating creator. Some of those buyers included a few Klan members (who probably didn't get the real point of the work), lured by the seductive colors and frolicking figures.

One of the most enthusiastic collectors of Sallie Lou's work is John Ground, a professor of ceramics in the Fine Arts Department at Millersville State College in Millersville, Pennsylvania. Ground, who also has a distinguished collection of traditional contemporary Mexican pottery that former ASU Art Museum director Rudy Turk was interested in having donated to his museum's extensive ceramics collection, stumbled over Sallie Lou's work at the Pennsylvania flea market where Andrew was selling. Ground now has more than 30 of Sallie Lou's works.

"It was only after Andrew moved to Cottonwood and I visited him there that he came clean with the fact that he was Sallie Lou and that she really didn't exist," says Ground. "Up until then, he had me believing that Sallie Lou was a real person, part black and part Indian, with this very involved life story, and that she had done the paintings I had collected. I even have a painting of Sallie Lou's grandparents. "I would go to the flea market and talk to Andrew, telling him I would really like to meet her. But he would always tell me that he was her agent and that she really didn't like to meet people. And then she moved to Cottonwood.

"Knowing the real story now," Ground speculates, "I wonder whether there might have been a real Sallie Lou type of figure in his past, and whether something very dramatic might have happened to her.

"In any event, I feel there is more than one person inside of Andrew, and Sallie Lou is one of those people. If you see my collection of paintings, you get a greater appreciation for this. It is hard to believe that just one person did all of the paintings, since they are stylistically and contentwise so different.

"At one point," Ground says, "Andrew was taking an art class back in Pennsylvania as himself. What Andrew was painting in that class and what Sallie Lou was painting were two different things. Andrew was painting very traditional Eastern scenes in an almost childlike style and more toned-down palette, while Sallie Lou's things were wild.

"The religious imagery in Sallie Lou's work has a very serious quality. For example, I have a piece that has a black, crucified Christ as the central figure, but the Christ figure has puppet strings attached to it. I have always suspected that, in reality, Andrew was heavily involved in the civil rights movement in the Sixties, but who knows?"
@rule:
@body:Whether Andrew believes he is actually Sallie Lou or whether he harbors multiple personalities are questions that, while intriguing, really don't need to be addressed. In many ways, all artists are multiple personalities, mere unconscious conduits for their creations, which are, for the most part, separate and apart from their true selves.

What we do know about Andrew is that he is a recovering alcoholic. He will proudly tell you he has been clean and sober for almost 19 years; he still attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings with churchlike regularity. He was born in the Thirties in eastern Pennsylvania of German, English and Pennsylvania Dutch stock, and claims that his great-great-grandmother was Daniel Boone's sister. He doesn't want to reveal the exact place he's from back East, but says, "It's between Harrisburg and Philadelphia."

One of several children of a prominent physician and his nurse wife, Andrew grew up in middle-class comfort with a black nanny whom he worshiped.

"As a kid, I was either drawing or cooking," he says. "I started doing drugs when I was 12 years old, having to take pills because I was fat. I weighed 286 when I was 12 years old."
Later, he says, a brief stint in the Air Force pared him down to 175 pounds.
After high school, Andrew went to business school in Pennsylvania, then on to Fannie Farmer's School of Cookery in Boston (I specialized in pastries"). In 1954, he attended the Art Career School in New York City, the Academy of Art on Sutter Street in San Francisco and the Rudolph Schaefer School of Design on Coit Hill. After returning to New York for more classes, he went back to his hometown in Pennsylvania. "That was my mistake, because I lived there for 28 years after I came back," he says. Andrew supported himself by selling his paintings and doing numerology readings. "I've made more money out of numerology than painting," he claims. "I was also a psychic medium, and I still do readings. In the old days, I thought I had to be high as a kite to do a reading, like Arthur Ford, who was a great psychic who discovered his psychic powers after an automobile accident when he was given morphine. I discovered that wasn't true."

Drugs and drink eventually took their toll; at some point, drugs caused the loss of most of his teeth. "However," Andrew says, "I was very prolific even when I was high; I did almost 2,000 paintings in one year at one point." Trouble with the law finally forced him to abandon addictive substances. Andrew credits AA with turning him around. "In Pennsylvania, I had AA meetings in my living room downstairs every day, three meetings a day."

At the urging of friend Claire Burnes, Andrew moved to Cottonwood after both of his parents died. Burnes is a fellow AA member from Pennsylvania and the manager of Cottonwood's Serenity hotel. After visiting the town for a week, Andrew was taken by the friendliness of its people, who would spontaneously greet him on the street.

"I had sent Sallie Lou out to Cottonwood to be with a sick aunt, because Claire lived here," Andrew recalls. "On the back of all her paintings from then on, it said that she lived in Cottonwood, Arizona." Little did he know that this would be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Andrew's work has taken different directions since he moved to Arizona. He's finished his African-American series and is on to other things reflecting his new Southwestern home.

Cactus crops up in the paintings now. There are convoluted dreamscapes and portraits of friends and people just passing through. There's a scene of Claire hanging lacy underwear and serapes on a clothesline in front of the Serenity hotel, and one titled "The Greater Sedona Area All-Girl Filharmonic." It's filled with buxom, beaming girls, white, black, brown and red, playing a motley assortment of instruments.

And there are the erotic pieces, with priapic males and alluring females, often on the bottom of some yard-sale find that Andrew has transmuted into an objet d'art.

He still pursues some of his favorite themes, however.
"I still do variations of my watermelon, which everyone loves. Like the watermelon fish, with slices of watermelon for scales. And I'm still doing Adam and Eve and the Immaculate Conception.

Show Pages
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
Sort: Newest | Oldest
 
Loading...