About two years ago, painter Sam Ezell opened his blue eyes and found a storm cloud parked over his right eye.
“It was like a black cloud floating over it,” said Ezell, 63, a prolific Hillsborough folk artist known for his bright, acrylic mayonnaise jars, chickens and simple everyday scenes.
Ezell didn’t know it yet, but that cloud would transform his art even as it distorted his vision. The results are on display at two arts shows in Hillsborough and others across the Deep South in coming months.
Ezell’s large colorful canvasses of long-stemmed flowers formed the back drop of Marry Durham in 2011, a community-building event in which participants celebrated their love for the Bull City. His smaller paintings were a mainstay at Outsiders Arts & Collectibles, a folk art gallery on Iredell Street in Durham that closed in 2013.
Ezell, who dropped out of school at 16 to help support his mother and four sisters, was born in Mebane and grew up in Durham. For 47 years, he’s been the caretaker at The Shops at Daniel Boone in Hillsborough.
“He is one of the nicest people anyone could ever meet,” said Karen Mack, co-owner of Mike’s Art Truck, a virtual folk art gallery that coordinates shows in public spaces. “He’s just always pleasant.”
Ezell is always willing and wanting to help someone, she said.
“He really doesn’t ever say no,” Mack said.
On March 28, 2015, Ezell woke at 6 a.m. to an opaque haze.
Ezell, who was planning to go to work at Daniel Boone, asked a coworker to take Ezell’s truck and drop him off at Duke Urgent Care on Hillandale Road in Durham.
“I said ‘Robert, take my truck and go on to work because y’all need to work, and I will stay here and someone will pick me up,’” Ezell said.
A late start
Ezell painted his first painting at the request of folk artist Bernice Sims who lived in Brewton in rural Alabama. He had met her on trips to meet the folk artists he had read about and collected. The meeting with Sims turned into a kinship. He would help her sell her paintings, fix her screen door and sometimes pay her water bill.
When one of Sims’ sons died, she told Ezell that he had been looking at her art for years. She wanted him to paint her a picture.
“I can’t paint a wall,” Ezell said.
Eventually he sent her a painting of a vase of flowers. Sims told Ezell that people who came to her house to look at her art wanted to buy his. So, he painted 15 more.
“Everybody seemed to like them, so I kept doing them,” he said.
He painted large, orange, yellow, red and blue flowers on canvasses he built and stretched himself. He painted red, blue and polka dot chickens; Duke’s Mayonnaise and Mt. Olive pickles jars, church gatherings, city streetscapes and yellow taxis. His flat perspectives, simple figures and bright colors beamed innocence.
He painted before work, at lunch, at night and on weekends. Before he lost his sight, he produced up to 50 pieces a week, a way to relax for a man who’s always fiddling with something.
“It’s like somebody wanting to go play golf,” Ezell said. “I don’t want to play golf. I want to paint. That’s my way of taking a break, I could say. Until I get wore out on it.”
Sims died in 2014 at 87.
“I miss her a whole lot,” he said. “I miss going to see her, picking up her art and talking with her on the telephone. ... I’d give all of this here away, just to, if you could talk to her again.”
At the urgent-care clinic, the doctor told Ezell he needed to go to the emergency room.
Since Ezell had sent his ride along, he walked nearly two miles to Duke University Hospital – and waited nearly 10 hours.
“All they could tell me was ‘well, you’re blind,’” he said.
A blood clot in his neck had broken loose.
“They said ‘You are lucky it went to your eye and stopped there,’ ” Ezell said. “If it went on to the brain, you would have dropped dead instantly.”
Instead it set up in his eye, killing some tissue, making Ezell feel like he was looking through “a frosted shower door.”
“It was real depressing for a long time, and it still is. ... When I went to go to painting my normal folk-art-type stuff, I’d put my brush in the paint, and I’d look at it, and I’d say ‘Oh my god. Look at that. I have got two inches of paint on that brush, all the way up on the stick,’” Ezell said.
“And then I went to put it up on the canvas, and it looked like I was touching the canvas, and I wasn’t even touching the canvas, and I thought ‘I didn’t get no paint on the canvas.’ And I looked sideways at it, and I was two inches away from the canvas trying to paint the picture.”
After a couple of months, Ezell began using the brush’s shadow as a guide. When the tip of the brush met the shadow, he knew he was touching the canvas.
The process helped, but it took him five times longer to finish a painting.
Ezell heard that eyes are muscles, he said. He thought if he changed his painting up a bit and used larger canvasses, he could retrain those muscles.
The night before Ezell took the paintings to the venues for his two new shows, he spread them out against the walls in a large room at the Daniel Boone village. Some were taller than him. Others rose just above his mossy gray beard. And others reached above the paint smudges on his worn flannel shirt.
He points to one of the first paintings he tried in a new style. The large canvas is dancing with abstract splashes and spatters of blue, red and green.
“I would throw the paint on it, and then I’d take the leaf blower and just blow it all around on it,” he said. “And let it run whichever way it wanted to.”
It’s already sold to a movie producer in Atlanta.
The experiment progressed to broad brush strokes on canvas and then purple, red, blue, yellow, lime green geometric shapes floating across the canvas.
In 20 months, he has done more than 25 paintings, stopping occasionally for requests for smaller paintings. He also started painting abstract flowers.
Folk art has historically been associated with poor, working class and self-taught artists. While the definition has expanded over the years, some people don’t think it is art at all, dismissing it as amateurish, said Mack, co-owner of Mike’s Art Truck.
Those who buy Ezell’s and other folk art obviously disagree.
Mack said Ezell’s new pieces share the happiness in his other paintings, but they are very different.
“I think they are really interesting,” she said. “I think, possibly, it might change people’s perspective on whether a folk artist is really an artist or not.”
Ezell has shown his new paintings to a few folks and the responses have been positive. The city of Hunstville, Alabama, wants him to paint a mural on a wall.
Maybe he’ll get to it, when he goes there at the end of this month to do an art show. Then he heads to outside of Atlanta for a show in May, and to Florence, Alabama, for yet another show.
He spends about 25 hours on the eight to 10 paintings he puts out a week.
The new paintings haven’t changed his eyes, he said, but they have helped him see something different through that cloud.
“I think it’s just helped my mind from really going real crazy,” Ezell said. “It’ll take your mind off of stuff.”
See for yourself
“Abstract Vision,” a collection of paintings with geometric shapes and bright colors, will be displayed on the second floor of Orange County’s Richard E. Whitted Building at 300 W. Tryon St. in Hillsborough through June 15. The space is open Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and during scheduled events.
Also through June 15, “Just Flowers: Old and New Folk Art by Sam Ezell” features some of Ezell’s earliest paintings of flowers alongside some of his most recent in the Alexander Dickson House, 150 E. King St. in Hillsborough. The 18th century Quaker plan house is home to the Hillsborough Visitors Center.