Former Elkins’ acquaintance and Nunnally’s Custom Framing store owner Ann Welch first spotted Elkins’ paintings on a recent visit to Quintard Mall, where a new store features his work. Welch said the first time she realized the former “picture taker” was also a painter was inside the mall store where his paintings are displayed beside the artist’s black-and-white photos.
“This was so different,” Welch said of Elkins’ vivid paintings. “I thought it was light hearted.”
Elkins’ paintings are the subject of an art exhibit at her Noble Street frame shop, which doubles as a local art gallery. There, Elkins’ work fills almost every available space in a small nook dedicated to the gallery’s featured artists each quarter.
Like Elkins’ photographs, his colorful paintings depict rural life. Many of them feature recurring one-dimensional figures such as pigs, watermelons, snakes, flowers and farms.
Several of the subjects hearken back to experiences from Elkins’ early life, his daughter Karen Fedoriw said. The snakes, for example, are reflective of Elkins’ experiences photographing Sand Mountain snake-handling congregations.
Fedoriw said the snakes have particular personal significance because the Sand Mountain coverage prompted her father to launch into a period of introspection and self analysis. More specifically, she said, it prompted him to consider his own connection to God and his salvation.
The pigs, Fedoriw said, are likely reflective of the family farm Elkins grew up on, and the watermelon likely links back to his teen years.
“He and his buddies used to steal a watermelon every once in a while and take it to the mountain and eat it,” Fedoriw said.
While Elkins’ paintings and his photographs focus on the same rural subjects, they were, in some ways, quite different.
Unlike the black-and-white photographs the late artist is known for, his paintings are full of color. And unlike his photographs, his paintings include several self portraits.
His self portraits are easy to pick out because Elkins, like Albert Einstein and Mark Twain, maintained an unkempt quaff and a thick mustache. One piece on display at the gallery contains three self portraits.
“Because his photography was about everyone else … I think he just did that for himself,” Fedoriw said.
Elkins didn’t pick up the paint brush until about 1980, his daughter said. She said his foray into the art form was sparked after he was introduced to the work of other painters, like Mose Tolliver.
“He brought home some work that he had bought and it was on wood and he said I can do that,” Fedoriw said.
Elkins’ work was crafted using some of the techniques established by American folk artists, including Tolliver, who Elkins once photographed. Like folk art by other southern artists, Elkins used simple strokes to create flat images in bright hues on rustic material.
Folk art is usually a cultural representation crafted by people who make little money and were never taught how to paint. Sometimes folk artists are inspired to create later in life and they often say they are inspired by God to make art, said Emily Leigh, assistant director of Kentuck Art Center in Northport.
In life, Elkins’ work was sometimes the subject of family jokes, but when she found a basement full of her father’s paintings after his death, Fedoriw said she felt obliged to share them.
“We used to joke with him and say it’s a good thing you’re a photographer,” she said.
Though he discovered the art form late in life, Fedoriw said he enjoyed it greatly.
“That was his time away when he didn’t have to be a photographer, I guess.”
Staff Writer Laura Johnson: 256-235-3544. On Twitter @LJohnson_Star.