Folk Artist of Cottonwood, Arizona
Ellen Jo Roberts
Any person wandering Cottonwood’s Main Street in the past 20 years has seen the handiwork of an interesting fellow best known as “Sallie Lou.” Since the late 1980s a staple of Old Town, and more recently relocated a bit further down 89A, the artist is a soft-spoken and slow-moving figure, strikingly garbed in hand-painted hats, shoes and pants. Sallie Lou is a living treasure, a local historian and an eccentric genius.
His home studio and gallery is well-arranged, equal parts stark and cluttered and smelling faintly of dust and sandalwood. His space is utilitarian and his possessions are few : art, books and photo albums. He's a documentarian. Sallie Lou has many friends and fans both near and far. He shows me a large framed collage comprised of photographs of favorite people. Painting on any available material he can come by, he makes art from canvas, wood, pants, jackets, shoes, boots, purses, mannequins-- pretty much any thing he can get his hands on, reusing, recycling. He works in acrylic paints, colored pencil, and ink. Many of his paintings are two sided, with an image on each side. Animal figures carved from soft Cottonwood decorate the window sills.
Subject matter tends towards historical, religious and abstract. He estimates he’s painted at least 35 Noah’s Arks. A large portion of his work is an extensive documentation of the daily life of Cottonwood, Arizona. Sallie Lou’s work also frequently features frank and playful nudity, saucy antics and an earthy sexuality. There are several paintings he calls “dirty”, gallantly shielding my eyes from viewing the bawdier canvases.
Surrounded by new works gently swaying on the fence, he sits in a plastic chair along Main Street and draws the cars that drive the highway and park in nearby lots, pedestrians, passers-by, strange looking clouds. “One day the clouds looked like a quilt. I'd never seen anything like it. And here is one day when the clouds were real frizzy on one end," he explains as he shows me pages of recent sketches, "I like cars. Every day I sit out here and sketch. I even do things that aren’t here.”
Andrew Spannuth was born in Pennsylvania 76 years ago and grew up the middle boy of three in the railroad town of Reading. There was another brother, born in 1930, who died tragically while riding in a car with his parents to his baptism. The car hit a large rock in the road and the door flew open. “They were going to church on Christmas Eve, and the child flew out the door and hit the ground and was killed. He was only three days old,” explains Sallie Lou, “That’s why Christmas was never a big deal for our family, after that.” The Spannuth Family history is traced back in painstakingly documented genealogical books packed with vintage photos and diagrammed family trees connecting to Daniel Boone, who is Sallie Lou’s 4th cousin.
“Baumstown, Pennsylvania is the hometown of the Boone Family”, he says, correcting popular fallacy that the Boones originated in Kentucky. The family’s history is full of interesting characters. “My mother was the only member of her family to die before age 100,” he shares, explaining his vigor. “I was a psychic spiritualist medium. My mother’s mother was known as 'The Great White Witch of the West'. She lived in Santa Rosa, California.”
Young Andy became an artist early on in life. “Somewhere in this apartment are two drawings I did when I was two years old. I was doing these drawings on the porch of our house and a man said to my mother ‘Oh you’re going to have a famous artist for a son.'” In the family genealogy book there is a photo of Andrew Spannuth as a young man in the 1950s, wearing tight-rolled chinos on his husky frame, crew cut and standing a full head taller than his father. His large size was a source of teasing,
“I had a terrible time growing up. I was very depressed all the time. My mother would tell me every day what route to go to school to avoid people. I was bullied beyond belief”
He left Pennsylvania for NYC to begin his studies in art. After one year he moved to the west coast and the Rudolph Schaeffer School of Design in San Francisco. “They gave me two years of college credit for one year of New York [schooling],” he says, “Because New York is so advanced of California. California is so slow.”
The 1960s were wild times, and by the early 1970s, Mr. Spannuth had joined Alcoholics Anonymous. He’s enjoyed 39 years of sobriety since. There’s an AA coin in his pocket and puts it in my hand for review, “When you get a coin in AA everyone passes it around. What you get is the vibration of all the alcoholics on the coin.” Entering a 28 day rehabilitation program at Pennsylvania’s “Chit Chat Farms” changed his life in more than one way, as it eventually led to his future arrival in Cottonwood, Arizona.
In the 1980s, the artist sold his work at a popular flea market in Kutztown, PA, frequented by New York art dealers. “I sold 350 paintings a year,” he said.
“That’s like one a day!,” I remark.
“Yeah, but I only sold them one day a week!”, he laughs.
Earlier artwork is abstract and intense, with bright colors, heavy shapes and architectural puzzles with intertwining staircases. “Stairs was my favorite thing,” he says, unrolling a favorite canvas with an Escher-like mystery of connecting staircases, all drawn freehand yet somehow looking ruler-straight. Soon he would venture in a new direction and a folk art style of whimsical narratives bustling with people.
He was told by his lawyer that in order to be a successful artist he had to create a separate name for his art persona. “When I went from being Andrew to Sallie Lou,” Mr. Spannuth explains, “I decided Sallie Lou would be a black woman.” His eyes twinkle as he recalls the birth of Sallie Lou, “My lawyer told me I had to have a story. So I’d say, ‘As the story goes, Sallie Lou was born in Texas.’ It was fun because somebody would come in and ask me a question. 'Does Sallie Lou have any brothers or sisters?' They’d ask questions and I’d say, ‘As the story continues…’”
As the years passed Sallie Lou's story became richer and more complex. She became a complete character, with many siblings (Tyrone, Canellia, Micki, Trische, Matt) and a self-portrait which depicts her as a buxom woman in an modestly cut, ocean-colored dress. The name Sallie Lou is an amalgam of two of Andrew’s friends’ names: Salvatore Bellone, and a woman named Louise he met in AA.
In the late 1980s, Sallie Lou’s “Negro History Series” featured important African American figures and Civil Rights events. Rosa Parks, George Washington Carver, Harriet Tubman, Matt Henson at the North Pole, the Woolworth Luncheon Counter Sit In, and assorted tangles with the Ku Klux Klan are all highlighted in this series. The Archbishop of the Catholic Church of Washington DC bought 17 paintings from this series. “All of his parishioners were black,” said Sallie Lou, proudly.
Sallie Lou arrived in the Verde Valley in 1988 after an invitation from Claire Miller Burns, a New York English teacher he met at Chit Chat Farms.
“What was it like when you first arrived here?” I ask.
“I had long hair. I smoked. I was a smoker. I walked up the street to the gas station up the hill. Now it’s a restaurant. And a little girl walked up to me and she said, ‘Oh you’re Andy. You’re living in Claire’s house.’ And she was so friendly and welcoming. Then I saw two men walking towards me up ahead, so I crossed the street. And the two men crossed the street.” Uh oh, I think remembering how young Andy avoided street encounters with bullies. He continues, “They wanted to say hello. They’d heard of me and wanted to wish me well. In Pennsylvania you wouldn’t have that.”
“At that time Cottonwood was very clean. Not a cigarette in the gutter. Not a piece of paper in the gutter. It’s not like that any more.”
I ask him how Arizona life has changed his artwork.
“In Pennsylvania I was really into color, “ says Sallie Lou, “ but when I came out here they told me I couldn’t paint with the same colors I was using in Pennsylvania because they were too bright.”
20 years ago, Old Town Cottonwood was tumbleweed sleepy, a slow-down spot along the highway with a bar called The Buckaroo. There wasn't much going on in the neighborhood back then. But in the 21st Century things are quite different. It's become a vibrant street scene packed with boutiques, wine tasting rooms, cafes and restaurants, hotels, galleries and pedestrians. (The Buckaroo still thrives on the corner, though it's now known as Kactus Kate's.) In his early days in Arizona, Sallie Lou used to work at the old Shep's, under the sun-baked neon beacon of Old Town, selling his art and manning the counter at the mini-mart. In 2009 the faded sign was renovated with new neon by Ledbetter Law Firm when they moved their offices into the old motel court.
What used to say "Shep's LIQUORS" now says "Old Town WELCOME".
“What do you think of Old Town’s changes in the past 20 years?”, I ask.
He is a man with a close up view of its transformation.
“Oh yeah,” he responds quickly, “It’s much better.”
One of Sallie Lou’s first western hits was creating art from cowboy boots.
I remember seeing the brightly painted boots on display outside of the old Shep’s back in the mid-1990s.
“I’ve painted so many cowboy boots. A couple from Texas bought 15 painted boots from me, and they sold them in Texas for $3,000-4,000 dollars a piece!” exclaims Sallie Lou. Makes me wonder why this fellow has never been swept up by some big city art dealers. He shakes his head at the thought. The shoe painting started for a practical reason, “When I lived in Pennsylvania I wore normal shoes. They were black and they’d get scuffed up. So I’d take acrylic paints and do an abstract design. And that’s how it started.”
Up until two years ago Sallie Lou was a resident of the Sun Dial Motel in Old Town. Art sales were good there.
“I sold a lot at the Sun Dial. Not so much here.” Relocated to a small house along Historic 89A across the street from Nate’s Cowboy Café, Sallie Lou invites people to visit his studio any day. “I am always here,” he says. He has much art readily available for purchase at a great range of prices, and also is happy to create commissioned work. I commission him to create a small painting of my car for $20.
“Last year I had a couple from Canada come up and down the street asking everyone where I was and they sent them to me,” he says as he flips through a large photo album. He keeps photos of every happy customer who ever bought a piece of his artwork since he’s been in Cottonwood. He touches each photo from page to page, remembering tidbits about each person.
Though Sallie Lou maintains a solitary profile much of the time, you don’t get the impression that he is alone. He is friendly and welcoming to visitors, and his life is rich with people and beautiful memories.
He keeps busy creating every day, explaining, “That’s why I’m not lonely. Because I can make something out of anything all the time.”
Visitors are always welcome at Sallie Lou’s studio. If you see him sitting outside sketching, he’d love for you to park for a spell and have a chat. His home gallery is located at 209 S Main St. #3, in Cottonwood, across from Nate’s Cowboy Café. You may call him at 928-639-2088.
And coming soon, plan to see Sallie Lou at this summer's Farmer’s Market in Old Town Cottonwood.
Sounds like a perfect fit for this fellow who has spent so many years documenting life along Historic Highway 89A.
Sad foodnote. On June 25th, 2012 Andrew Spannuth died in Cottonwood, Arizona. He was a special person and his presence will be missed.
Ellen Jo Roberts lives in a historic brick bungalow in Clarkdale Arizona with a boy named Chad, a cat named Ned, and three dogs, Floyd, Ivan and Hazel. You can see her driving a yellow Karmann Ghia through town. Read more at ellenjo.com