Big, bold color define the work of outsider artist Sam Ezell

Published 7:25 pm Wednesday, August 29, 2018


Sam Ezell is a maintenance man, a country boy who grew up in Hillsborough. He started working when he was 16 years old and has never stopped. He’s a lifelong collector of folk art and antiques, found in places he calls “junk shops.” In first grade, he failed most every subject but art.

Sixty years later, life has come full circle. What he paints, he sells — at shows, at auctions, online — and he doesn’t own a shirt that’s not covered in paint.

Ezell’s work is big. It’s bold. It’s enormous canvasses filled with eye-popping color that never fail to draw attention, and also never fail to affect the people who encounter them for the first time.

“You’ll see people start smiling. Whether they buy anything or not, it tickles me to put a smile on their face. I like to see people happy,” Ezell said.

The bright, cheerful colors he loves drew him to collecting folk art to begin with. Much later, it was a request by one of his favorite artists for a Sam Ezell painting of her own that prompted him to pick up a paintbrush for the first time.

“I said, ‘Bernice, I can’t paint a wall,’” he laughed. “She said, ‘If you don’t paint me a painting, I’m gonna be mad.’”

His first attempt was a sunflower.

“The more I did to it, the worse it got to looking,” he said, but the piece resonated with both his folk artist friend and visitors to her studio. She sold the first one and asked for more. “I’d give her I don’t how many paintings, but she sold every one of them. … I was doing 15 a day.”

WHERE IT STARTED: Ezell’s folk art started with a sunflower and other simple items in life, such as this Duke’s mayonnaise jar. Blindness in one has forced Ezell to transform his style into larger, more abstract works.

Then, he specialized folk art, or “outsider art” — simple, colorful paintings of, for example, a jar of Duke’s mayonnaise or chickens, which he calls yard dogs. But that changed by necessity several years ago when a seemingly average case of “floaters” in one eye became 95-percent loss of vision in that eye overnight.

That’s when Ezell’s art began to grow, stretching to canvasses that fill an entire wall; canvasses that may start on sawhorses but sometimes end up on the floor so he can reach their entirety; canvasses that sometimes won’t fit out the door of his studio.

“I like working on the bigger stuff. I’ve always liked big art,” Ezell said. “To me, art, the bigger the art, the better the art. I don’t know why. I figure one day, if a museum gets it, they like big art.”

Ezell concentrates on shapes. Squares, triangles — for him, they serve as a sort of therapy, forcing him to adjust both his artistic and actual vision to compensate for blindness in one eye.

“I do that because it’s got to have a straight line. Sometimes, I’ll put the brush on the canvas 10 times, because I can’t see that straight line,” he said. “Usually, I’ll start half-inch away, and I have to move over, pick up the brush until I get to where I want to be at.”

Ezell still works his full-time job, taking care of the properties at Daniel Boone Village in Hillsborough but finds time to work on his abstract paintings whenever he can.

“A lot of time, I’ll go in the mornings. I’ll go in and paint for about an hour. Then if I get off work at 4 o’clock and I’m not tired, I’ll paint then. Sometimes, I’ll get up at 2 o’clock at night — if I’m awake, I’ll go up to the studio and paint,” he said.

Ezell’s next big appearance will be in October at the Kentuck Festival of the Arts in Northport, Alabama, a 47-year-old festival featuring folk artists from across the world. From more than 380 artists, his work was chosen to represent Kentuck on the festival T-shirt last year. Even with such recognition, Ezell’s transition to an artist of stature in the outsider art world still comes as surprise.

“There’s a lot of famous people out there that are into folk art. They all say I’m famous. I’m just me. I don’t consider myself that way. I’m just a person,” Ezell said. “I don’t know what I’m doing. I still don’t know how to paint. I just do it.”

Sam Ezell’s artwork is currently on display at the Contemporary Art Exchange, 127 E. Main St., and at the Turnage Theatre, 150 W. Main St., Washington.