Earl Wayne Simmons was born in 1956 in Bovina, Mississippi, and has lived there all of his life. As a child, he made toy jukeboxes, trucks, and planes out of cardboard, bottle tops, and jar lids, using a Coca-Cola bottle as a hammer. He also loved drawing and wanted to be an artist, a pursuit that was encouraged by the first-grade teacher at his rural black school. By the time he reached high school, however, Mississippi’s schools had integrated, and he was told that he needed no training. He left school in 1971, after his junior year. In 1974 he joined the Job Corps, learning carpentry in Louisville, Kentucky, and made his first jukebox piece. He returned to Bovina planning to build a workshop.
In 1978 he began building Earl’s Art Shop, creating a place to live and make toys, art, and furniture. He later added a juke joint, or café, building the tables, booths, and bar and installing a Wurlitzer jukebox loaded with 45s. From his job at Anderson-Tully, a Vicksburg sawmill, Simmons salvaged scrap lumber, nails, and other supplies. During the 1980s, he added the Souvenir Art Store and Art Gallery, a covered entrance, a tin roof, an overhead room, a living room, and a den and expanded the café. Earl’s Art Shop became a destination for tourists and a roadside stop for travelers. Nearly all of the building was open to the public, guided by hand-painted signs.
Simmons also made and sold sculptures of jukeboxes; cars, trucks, tractors, airplanes, and riverboats; and roosters, peacocks, and other birds, using wood, chrome strip, reflectors, and many other types of salvaged materials. In addition, he built furniture; created paintings of himself, his family, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and John F. Kennedy; and made signs using a stylized western-influenced script. In addition to selling his creations at the Art Shop, Simmons began receiving commissions, including one from the House of Blues nightclub chain, and his works were exhibited and sold at the Southside Gallery in Oxford and the Attic Gallery in Vicksburg. Simmons’s works gained further appeal when “serial entrepreneur” Scott Blackwell created the Immaculate Baking Company and commissioned Simmons and other folk artists whose work Blackwell admired to create packaging for the company.
In 1994 the Mississippi Arts Commission awarded Simmons an Artist Fellowship, and he began working on a major addition to the front of the Art Shop. Over the remainder of the decade, he focused primarily on painting, taking as his subject matter such Mississippi pop culture icons as hot tamales, juke joints, and Highway 61 and often riffing on advertising images.
In 2002 fire destroyed all thirty rooms of Simmons’s hand-built home, workshop, and art gallery as well as numerous artworks and his stockpile of materials. Simmons rebuilt, but fire again destroyed his home and workshop in 2012. As of 2015, he was again reconstructing Earl’s Art Shop. By 2016, he had again reconstructed Earl’s Art Shop.
Simmons sees his art as a way to “take things that are no good to anybody else and make it worth something.” In 2007 Earl’s Art Store was the subject of an exhibition at the College of Architecture, Art, and Design at Mississippi State University School of Architecture Jackson Center. His work is in the collection of the Mississippi Museum of Art, and Earl’s Art Shop has been featured on Mississippi Educational Television.
- Karekin Goekjian, Light of the Spirit: Portraits of Southern Outsider Artists (1998)
- Lorraine Redd and Jack Davis, Only in Mississippi: A Guide for the Adventurous Traveler (1993)
- Southern Foodways Alliance website, www.southernfoodways.org
- Stephen Flinn Young, Earl’s Art Shop: Building Art with Earl Simmons (1995)