Prized horse 'Dana' was carved by O.L. Samuels over a period of seven years                      Photos by author

O.L. Samuels and his imaginative universe of animals, people and goblins: 'I make things with the help of the spirit'

By Michael Abrams
Copyright 2008

I went to visit folk artist O.L. Samuels, 76, who had phoned me in excitement to tell me he had finished some "tight work." 

That always means something so supernatural that no one could think to carve it it except Samuels. 

Recognized by museums and collectors as one of this country's finest self-taught folk artists, he has invented out of tree trunks, branches and roots a flat-out mad universe of crazy speckled birds and fish, lolling and panting dogs, insane and bodacious hobgoblins, garrulous golems and bejeweled totems.

He's fitted his own version of young Ray Charles with a scraggly shoulder-length wig and painted a gold tuxedo with red striped trousers on a gritty, determined black Moses, off to confront Pharoah.

His work recently was part of an exhibit at the Mary J. Brogan museum in Tallahassee. Some of his work is in other places, including the Smithsonian. And, of course, some of it is on permanent display in city hall in Tallahassee.

Samuels recently and proudly earned his credentials as a lay minister at his church. He says he puts "the spirit" into everything he makes. He lives with his wife Gladys in a small home in Tallahassee where his workshop has taken over the living room. His recent bride is both appreciative and tolerant of his genius, but probably wants her living room back.

In another room is Dana, a horse about five feet high that Samuels has worked on for seven years and which was on display at the fancy Red Hills Horse Trials. It is pictured above.

Buyers who learn of him sometimes come from far away. However, as with most artists, making a living comes in fits and starts. One customer actually traded her car for life-size carving of a woman with a man's head.

When this reporter arrived at his home, Samuels was working on a big yellow "mango" (picture at bottom of story), which is his way of saying "flamingo." He has studied the habits of these animals.

"A certain time of year these birds get together and praise God with a loud noise," said Samuels. "They do that to attract females.

"This is a mango, he's the lottery bird."

"This particular bird wanted a hat to where he could attract the females," said Samuels. "I got him some glasses, he's going to have glassses. He's tight work."

The Florida lottery uses a rather standard and staid pink flamingo as its symbol. Samuels has also carved his own Geico insurance lizard, and his own version of the extraterrestrial "E.T."

Other wood carvers who have seen his work always comment on its originality. A Baltimore avant garde art museum displayed his green-eyed cat (at right). Dr. Seuss, eat your heart out.

He wants to buy a real home for himself and Gladys, with space for a workshop. He and his wife are saving up.

Perhaps if everyone bought one of his pieces, their dream would come true.

Part of owning a Samuels piece is the story that goes with it. When a customer bought a gold, blue and yellow alligator, O.L. Samuels told a story about his pet alligator and how he used to swim with him. 

"I had a pet alligator and when I would lead him out he would roar and holler and when he did that the ground would vibrate. Now I used to get in there and swim with the alligators. They didn't bother me, the snakes either."

He's got so many tales about being a professional boxer, a tree surgeon, surviving attempts on his life, meeting the spirit of death face- to- face, and the change that the Bible made in his life.

He's learned a lot about behavior from observation. He knows the walking and standing positions of almost every animal, and studies how the muscles move. When he sees a block of wood, he understands the animal it must become.

Animals talk to each other, and Samuels can talk to the sparrows, for instance. They motion back, by their movement.

"A horse has more pride than any other animal," says Samuels, who has carved a few. "They talk to each other and praise God with their movements."

While some may think that O.L. Samuels makes things with a great sense of humor, he is serious. "I make things as real as possible," he says. "I make things with the help of the spirit."

Samuels has had near misses with death. His home was dynamited after he spoke to the cops about drugs in the neighborhood. He was knifed and was close to death in a hospital in Georgia. Once making a living as a tree surgeon, he was hit in the head by a swinging trunk while cutting. Barely surviving that,  he was confined to a wheelchair. He learned to carve when he was in the wheelchair.

"How many times I escaped death, I think it was 36 times," said Samuels. "God is keeping me alive for some reason," he said.

Samuels will often carve on a piece for months, improving it to his satisfaction. He'll put something aside and start another project, coming back to the first with renewed energy. His commitment often keeps him awake through the night, working on his projects. Then he lovingly puts the point-by-point coat of paint on his work that is part of his unique style.

He likes to hear from people and answers the phone at 850-210-6886

There's another article about him at the web newspaper, The Tallahassee News.

     'Dana' was on exhibit at the Red Hills Horse Trials

O.L. Samuels and his new 'lottery bird' flamingo with sporty hat