Folk artist Earl Simmons raising home day-by-day

Published 12:00 am Monday, August 11, 2003

[8/10/03]A year ago, folk artist Earl Wayne Simmons watched as flames shot into the sky from his home and gallery. A year later, Simmons works to build a new home that climbs skyward.

The 37-year-old Simmons has learned a lesson or two from the blaze that nearly destroyed his life’s work and home for 23 years.

“I’ve learned not to treasure many worldly things anymore,” Simmons said. His wife and four of her children were at home when the fire broke out nearly a year ago, on Aug. 13, but not injured.

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“Sometimes the Lord does things for the better,” he said.

Simmons said he works “too much” on what will again be his folk art gallery and living quarters on Warriors Trail in Bovina.

“Too much” means everyday.

“We work on it every chance we get,” he said, adding his brother-in-law Willie Shears helps, and his wife, Geneva Shears, helps when she can.

Simmons and his family now live in a mobile home obtained after the fire, but he’s built a walkway leading onto a deck and has begun on rooms that will eventually be the gallery.

“I’ll put it like this: It will be all right.”

His workshop, built of tin materials, resembles a church and sits behind the mobile home and future gallery.

And among the materials he’s using for construction are remnants of the former structure.

He said the only items salvageable from the fire were a set of tin and wood doors and a couple of posters.

“I guess that’s what the good Lord wanted to keep,” Simmons said. “The whole house burned down, and that’s the only thing left.”

He said the new structure is different because it’s elevated.

“To me, it’s much better,” he said. “For one thing, it’s off the ground and more level.”

And like the first one, the new structure will have rooms upstairs toward the sky.

Earl’s Art Gallery contained many of his original works, many of them brightly painted assemblages of wood and metal, and the combined home and gallery had themed rooms and was art itself. High school and college students took field trips there, and it was featured in newspapers and magazines locally, nationally and internationally.

After the fire, the community rallied to help the family of 15 living in the home. About $5,000 in cash and other donations were collected. And friends and members of the art community hosted a benefit at which artists donated works for a silent auction.

A year later, Simmons and Willie Shears continue to gather materials for the house almost daily. They grab what they can from junkyards and, occasionally, ditches.

As a worker for the Warren County Highway Department, Simmons said when he and other employees are out driving around, he’ll see things along the road people have thrown out.

“I’ll see it, and after work we’ll come back and get the truck and go get it,” he said.

And as for having an eye for a suitable piece for his new structure, Simmons said there’s no way to tell if that certain board, old door, tin or scrap metal will work.

“You don’t know,” he said. “You bring it here and put it down and see where it will fit.”

Simmons said he couldn’t estimate when his gallery and home will be finished.

“The faster we get materials, the faster we put it up,” he said.

Asked about his motivation and reason for rebuilding, Simmons reveals another lesson learned from the devastating fire.

“You don’t need to worry about what’s gone,” he said. “That will worry you to death. You might as well start over.”