Meet Salt Laker Doug Simmons, who has a wooden palm tree on his terrace, a flamingo toilet plunger in his bathroom, a ceramic cow's head on his wall and rubber chickens in his kitchen. Oh, yes. Simmons makes magic wands, too, and uses them to cast spells. Obviously, the sort of man you don't forget.
This unforgettable character must have been using his magic wands a lot lately. Every day more and more people seem to be falling under the spell of his artwork, which is just as witty and wonderful as the place in which it's created.Step inside Simmons' apartment on Center Street, and you'll feel like Alice in Wonderland. Fat cats sit smiling, Cheshire-like, on kitchen counter tops. Half-painted magic wands poke out of boxes and vases. A colorful, cockeyed coffee table looks ready to dance off on spindly legs. And no, it wouldn't be a bit surprising to see the White Rabbit or the Mad Hatter pop up from behind the couch or a flamingo dish fly down out of the cupboard and run away with a spoon.
Doug calls it just an "ordinary" bachelor pad. But you'd better put "extra" in front of that.
One of the most extraordinary features is the living room - a veritable jewel box chuck full of bolos, bangles 'n' beads. Simmons works there. Actually, he lives there. He's at his paint-splattered table so much of the time that the outside world often seems as remote as Mars.
"Every once in a while, I have to leave; drive around; go downtown; forget about art," he says. " You can get too caught up in this kind of career. It's important to stay in touch with society."
Most of the time, though, he's perfectly content to remain inside his wonderland. And, although the life's a solitary one, the man is seldom lonely. There are two Scottish Folds, Rosie and Hewy, to keep him company and offer purrs or criticism. There's his make-believe colleague, George Tijuana, who brings in a lot of workers from South of the Border to assist with production when the going gets rough. For Doug Simmons, days are fun and full as he explores the far side of his imagination and hones his creative artistic style.
The style of this talented craftsman has been variously described as humorous, cute, quaint, country and contemporary. And, believe it or not, every one of the adjectives applies. One minute, like a modern Merlin, he can be found making and waving those whimsical magic wands. Another time, he can be found busily painting cats that resemble Rosie and Hewy. Still another, his subject might be cows with plump bodies and comical, endearing expressions.
Snakes sometimes slither out of his paintbrush as part of a current fascination with the Southwest. Coyotes and lizards are an important part of the menagerie. And then there are geometrics - some of his favorite designs.
The Simmons scope is as all-encompassing as the decor of his apartment.
Lately, the Salt Laker has been concentrating on wearable art - bracelets, beads, pins, bolo ties and such made of either wood or baked clay. But his fanciful motifs have adorned far more than jewelry in the past and undoubtedly will in the future. Consider for a moment just a few of the items that have worn the Simmons signature: needlework patterns, wooden eggs, posters, canvas bags, thimbles and mailboxes. Once he painted a giant fairy tale motif on a beach house. Another time, there was a commission to paint scenery on a van.
Whether it's something as big as a van or a house, or something as small as a thimble, Simmons seems to welcome each fresh artistic challenge. Experimenting, growing, changing and developing _ that's what art's all about, in his opinion. And his sincerity and enthusiasm are as obvious as Rosie and Hewy's adoration for their master.
Simmons is enthusiastic, too, about the freedom the free-lancer's life affords. After all, what ordinary 9-to-5 job would allow you to sit in your bathrobe painting until noon without a time clock to punch, staff meetings to attend and a boss to please. But there's a dark side to the picture as well _lean times when a regular paycheck and paid vacations sound like heaven. And the Salt Lake artist's the first to admit it. Listen, he says, it's almost impossible today to make a decent living selling your work. Starry-eyed kids, who think they're going to become Van Goghs, ought to be aware of that. Most art graduates will find it necessary to have other jobs, usually teaching. And if they don't _ pardon the old cliche _ they truly might end up starving in garrets.
After graduating from Utah State University, Simmons almost became a teacher himself and did work for a while as a substitute. But he quickly learned academia was not for him. The system, he contends, often stifles creativity in students, and far too much time has to be spent with disciplinary problems. He also worked for about five years in art services at Weber State. But the son of Paul and Virginia Simmons of Roy, who's related to the great Utah artist Avard Fairbanks, wasn't really happy in the structured situation. He longed for a chance to spread his artistic wings. While at Weber, Simmons began making a few fledgling flights into free-lancing _ marketing some items at art fairs in the area and at an Ogden gift shop. Slowly, the clientele began to grow.
Then members of the Promontory Point Cat Club discovered him and asked for items to sell at their shows. Although Simmons didn't own a cat to act as his model at the time _ that was before Rosie and Hewy padded into his life _ he agreed to try his hand at the project. And the animals that emerged on programs and trophies and souvenirs and such captivated the feline fanciers, who remain some of his best customers today.
How many whiskery faces has he painted since that first cat show? Well, Simmons hasn't kept track. Suffice it to say that there must have been thousands _ all breeds, all colors, all sizes and in all kinds of costumes. (To comply with cat show themes, one year he drew kitties in train engineers' outfits, another time, cowboy cats in Western gear.)
Kim Wheelwright, a member of the Promontory group, has a veritable gallery of Doug Simmons felines in her home. And felines, the artist says, probably are his all-time best sellers, whether they're marketed with cat club people or just ordinary customers. (Once he painted some canines for a local dog show _ but sales weren't anything to bark about. His conclusion: people who like cats are a breed apart.)
These days, Simmons' cats, along with his other art work, can be found at several local outlets including Chameleon Artwear and Mary Amanda's in Salt Lake and Shepherd's Bush in Ogden. Every year the artist designs something unique and new to feature at the Ogden store. And in August his offering will be colorfully painted aprons. He also plans to have items on display and for sale at the Ogden Autumn Fest at the Union Station, Sept. 10 and 11.
In addition to retail outlets, Simmons sells work out of his home. And much of that work is custom. A client with a black and white cat might call and request a necklace featuring her very own pet. To produce such a creation takes a lot of time, and therefore, says the artist, isn't very profitable. So he hopes to eventually move away from custom-made items into other areas. Painting on T-shirts appeals to him, as does making furniture. He'd like to work with more stores, and would even be receptive to creating designs and selling them to be manufactured for the mass market.
"But I'd want to keep track of quality control as long as my name appeared on the product," he stresses.
As it stands today, products turned out by the free-lancer may be similar in tone and technique. However, there never are two identical pieces. It's impossible to paint something the same twice, he explains, and that's the beauty of collecting art-to-wear items. You won't meet yourself on the street. You have something that's one-of-a-kind.
Pricing the one-of-a-kind items, however, is difficult. The Salt Lake artist probably could be charging a lot more and get it, friends believe. But making a great deal of money has never been one of his top priorities. More important by far is keeping things affordable so that the average person can buy and enjoy.
Simmons, who likes living in Salt Lake even though it isn't a major art center, enjoys buying and collecting the work of others. Right now, the ceramics of Paris and Tom Bottman are favorites. He also has accumulated an incredible variety of other objets d'art and just plain objects over the years, including flamingos. In his apartment are flamingo coffee mugs, lamps, pictures and figurines.
Precisely what it is about the exotic birds that appeals? Well, who knows? But he does say which artists appeal to him and offer inspiration: the nationally-known illustrators, Don Weller and Bob Peak; the great pop artist, Andy Warhol; and the all-time grand master, Picasso.
He also admires the artistic quilts created by his mother and the work of his late brother, Russell, who was a commercial illustrator in Los Angeles.
"I like all kinds of art and crafts," emphasizes the free-lancer. "I appreciate all kinds of artists even when their work is vastly different from mine. It gives me encouragement on bad days when sales aren't going well to remember how others have struggled to make a name for themselves. Take the Bottmans, for instance. They had to work hard for recognition, but now their work can be found in big stores like Neiman-Marcus. Wouldn't it be wonderful if that could happen to me!"
And all of a sudden Simmons gets a twinkle in his eye and picks up one of those magic wands. "Maybe I could cast a little spell. . . ."