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Andy Don Emmons: A Busy Contemporary Folk Artist

The question, “What do you do in your spare time?,” asked humorously, makes Andy Don Emmons pause for just a moment, and then laugh out loud. But Emmons, described most often as a contemporary folk artist, has a ready answer.

“I like to fish sometimes. And our 1,200-acre family ranch keeps me busy feeding and working the cows,” he said. “I go antiquing in Canton and at other flea markets to find stuff to make art out of. I like to play music. I really want to do another art car. I miss driving an art car. Driving a car with toys and things all over it is an interesting social experiment.”

Emmons, who splits his time between Longview and Fairfield, also does a lot of charity work, much of it through the Odd Fellows Waxahachie lodge.

“It’s a good thing to give back to the community, and a lot of good fellowship,” he said.

Art, music, and “having a fun, good life” are at, or near, the top of the long list that begins to define Emmons.

Christina Rees, an outspoken arts critic who is now director of Fort Worth Contemporary Arts, an off-campus gallery owned by TCU, once said: “Both haunted and amused by his past, Andy Emmons approaches small-town culture with razor-sharp perversity. One could spend a hell of a long time studying each picture and still not see everything — symbolic, inferred, or tangible — that Emmons has injected into them. It’s what makes him the unique amalgam he is. Trust me. It don’t get no better than this.”

Emmons is proud of the quotation, although it’s not really the kind of work he does anymore. As prolific as he is in so many genres and in-genre styles, he seldom sits, figuratively and literally, in one place for very long, even in the context of a response.

“That show was done based on growing up in Fairfield, a small town in East Texas, and was a kinda dark, empirical exhibit of drawings I did at that time in my life,” he said. “I think Christina grew up in the city, so she was fascinated with small town tall tales.

“For some reason, I always started out drawing the eyes of characters. Why? I was kinda obsessed with the form of the eye. Lately, I’m just trying to explore different styles people use, making them really bright and eye catching with a lot of movement.”

Emmons is also art curator for Austin Psych Fest, a festival that focuses on music from or inspired by the 1960s.

It’s another move away from illustrating the stories he heard growing up in Fairfield.

“I kinda did them all, and I’m moving toward a more mature, psychedelic phase, I guess, influenced by black light posters of the 1960s,” he said. “My new work is also based on cartoon eyes, different shapes you see in cartoon eyes and pretty much abstracted out.”

A recent show at Tyler Junior College featured that work.

When Emmons began, he made what he calls “plain Grandma Moses type genre paintings.” As his skills developed, he went through incarnations of using Sharpies and watercolors, into large-scale sculptures in concrete, smaller sculptures made from barn tin and cedar, and half a dozen art cars, including the Yellow Rose Cadillac that he covered in 10,000 rhinestones. That one was exhibited in the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin and is now in the Freestone County Historical Museum.

The last big sculpture he did, in 2008, sits across from the city library in Huntsville. It’s a 50-foot concrete fountain of a Mayan chief — “a cross between a Mayan and an alien is the easiest way to describe it, I guess” he said. Water runs from its head, where there’s also a planter. The statue is covered in small mirrors.

Emmons, who is 49 years old, is also a musician and, at times, a teacher, having served as director of adult education at the Longview Museum of Fine Arts, a post he left earlier this year to help his sister, Julee Emmons, run an antique mall, the Armadillo Emporium, in Fairfield.

Emmons also did the Cuzzin Longhair’s Psychedelic Armadillo Show for about a year, playing the music he liked. He is now starting a new band, Inferno Texino, with some artists and musicians in Dallas.

“I call it psychedelic blues swamp rock,” he said. “I was born in 1966, and some of the best music I ever heard was the 13th Floor Elevators, garage music, etc., especially from Texas, fuzzed out blues-driven rock done in people’s garages. Bands like Moving Sidewalk which became ZZ Top. And I’m a big Hendrix fan. I love to paint to it. And Sun Ra and Thelonious Monk in jazz. Music is a big part of my life — the rhythm of it.”

All of it — or most of it, anyway — falls, to him, under the contemporary folk art banner.

“My stuff now still has a folk quality to it, a sort of outsider style but more abstract,” he said. “In Europe they call it ‘art brute.’ It’s pretty much my own personal creative process to express my inner self, the subconscious. I work a lot subconsciously. I don’t really sketch a whole lot before I do pieces.”

Influences include James Surls and Sam Houston State University art teacher Charles Pebworth, who taught Surls in the 1960s and Emmons in the 1980s. Influences also include prison artist Frank Jones and the Rev. Johnnie S. Swearingen; Emmons helped take care of Swearingen for a year or so after Swearingen’s wife died, and it was Swearingen who influenced him to “get up and paint every day,” he said.

“I think what counts is doing the work, the work ethic. It’s not going to create itself.”

Emmons’ work is in the collections of the Longview Museum of Fine Arts, the Southeast Texas Museum in Beaumont, the Bullock, the Kansas Folk Life Museum, Mighty Fine Arts in Dallas, and in private collections including the House of Blues and other restaurants and music venues. And, of course, at the Armadillo Emporium.

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