Fire destroys homemade home, art gallery

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 14, 2002

Culkin Volunteer Firefighter Kenny Pugh rests his head on his arm as firefighters of Culkin, Bovina and Fisher Ferry Volunteer Fire Departments work to contain the blaze on Warriors Trail in Bovina Tuesday.(The Vicksburg Post/MELANIE DUNCAN)

[08/14/02]Earl Wayne Simmons passed out on the side of the road Tuesday after he walked up and saw flames shooting nearly 50 feet into the air from the roof of his home and art gallery in Bovina.

Less than 50 feet away, his wife, Geneva Shears, fell to the ground sobbing. In less than an hour, everything the family owned and the art Simmons had been creating for 23 years was destroyed.

“We don’t have enough water and we’re using everything the area’s got,” Warren County Volunteer Fire Coordinator Kelly Worthy said as volunteers from Culkin and Bovina departments tried to keep the fire from spreading into adjacent woods and nearby homes. A painted sign near the front door not yet captured by the flames read, “Earl’s Art Gallery and Museum.”

“There’s not enough water in the Mississippi to cool this off,” Worthy said at the scene, 644 Warriors Trail.

The fire started around 11:32 a.m. behind the rambling home’s stove and spread quickly through the mostly wooden structure, Shears said. She, her three small children and her 17-year-old son who were home at the time, escaped unharmed before the flames spread into the attic, broke through the roof and burned the leaves and small branches off nearby trees.

“If I wouldn’t have woke, we’d all be dead,” Shears said.

Simmons was taken to River Region Medical Center, where he was reported treated and released. The family spent the night in motel rooms provided by the Red Cross.

Earl’s Art Gallery contained not only his original works, many of them brightly painted assemblages of wood and metal, but the structure had themed rooms and was art itself. High school and college students took field trips there. It had been featured locally by The Vicksburg Post and in newspapers and magazines nationally and internationally.

“That’s his whole life,” said Lesley Silver of Vicksburg’s Attic Gallery. “The place where he lived defined who he is. It was his masterpiece.”

The family, which includes Shears’ 13 children, lost everything, including their clothing and household goods.

Simmons, who also works for the Warren County Highway Department, built the home one room at a time. Different areas depicted a store, gallery, museum, nightclub, disco booth, cafe and workshop.

Some of his folk art, which included paintings, collectible toy cars and trucks and rebuilt restaurant equipment, was there. Other items are in shops, galleries and personal collections.

“It’s a lost treasure,” Silver said. “People know about him all over the world.”

A benefit for Simmons and the family will be from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Aug. 25 at the Attic Gallery. Immediate donations are also being accepted, Silver said.

“His art was his way of making his dreams come true,” said Daniel W. Boone, a Vicksburg artist familiar with Simmons and his work.

Boone said Simmons began creating things as a child when he would have to make his own toys from whatever he could find. As an adult, he continued making his art from wood, metal and other materials he could salvage.

The house reduced to ashes actually started from two windows that were given to Simmons, Boone said, adding that he built the first walls around them and kept going.

But the eccentric design may have actually quickened the pace that the fire spread, according to firefighters.

“That type of construction; we just didn’t have a chance,” Worthy said.

The home was built like a maze, according to Worthy, making it impossible for firefighters to get inside to the flames. The outside was covered with tin, keeping water from getting inside.