Webster's defines folk art as the traditional typically anonymous art of usually untrained people. What this really amounts to is art without pretense. When we asked Hillsborough, NC folk artist Sam Ezell about the inspiration for his monumental Old Glory painting of the American flag in our April Modern Art and Design Auction he said simply that he set up to paint on the side of the highway one day around the 4th of July and before he knew it he'd painted a flag. A 5'x7' flag.
Ezell was born and raised in North Carolina. He didn't start painting until he was in his fifties, at the urging of another folk artist whose work he collected and who had become a good friend. He painted just to relax from his day job doing maintenance, but his paintings quickly gained a following. In the beginning, his subject matter was the typical folk art celebration of everyday life - he painted historic local buildings, pots of flowers, iconic jars of mayonnaise and pickles. His paintings were bright, joyful depictions of the familiar.
In more recent years, however, Ezell has begun to blur the line between "folk art" and just "art." His subject matter has become almost wholly abstract and he's experimenting with different techniques, such as creating Pollock-esque works with a leaf blower, and using a spaghetti strainer to drizzle paint on the canvas. He showed us one canvas that he's reluctant to sell, though he's had strong interest in it, for which he was inspired by Willem de Kooning. Ezell's aunt was a contemporary of de Kooning's in Manhattan, and would pick the artist up from the bars when he was too drunk to ride his bicycle home. So Ezell painted an abstract picture of a bicycle, in the style of de Kooning, using de Kooning's method of painting with rags.
About three years ago, Ezell suffered a stroke that cost him part of his eyesight. He now has double vision and problems with depth perception. Ezell says that when he tries to take something that's held out to him, he's just as likely to grab the person doing the offering as he is the object. He's developed a method of watching the shadow of his brush as he paints - when the tip of the brush meets its shadow, he knows he's made contact with the canvas. Though doctors tell him he's unlikely to regain any of his sight, he thinks of the strain that painting puts on his eyes like exercise, and hopes that with time it will improve.
The challenge of painting with impaired vision has changed how Ezell works, namely in that it's much slower going. The mayonnaise jars that he used to be able to paint at a rate of 40 a day now take several days each. The size of his current work is also partly due to his vision, though luckily for Ezell he says he just likes big art.
Ezell is remarkably understated about his paintings - he sells it mostly to those who happen to stop by his studio. He has shown his paintings all over the Southeast but he does not often include his larger works in those shows because of the difficulty of transporting them. We are lucky enough to be in his neighborhood, and have sold several of his outsize canvases. We are currently listing both the flag and the abstract piece above which measures 70.75"x 60.5". Ezell is the subject of an upcoming documentary by a faculty member from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, which will feature the auctioning of his work at one of our sales later this spring. We may get to claim him as a local treasure, but his artistic reputation far outstrips his geographical boundaries.