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Earl Nunneley's Conversation Pieces

As much fuss as the art community has made in recent years over what they like to label "folk art," it seems that those actually responsible for it rarely understand what the big stink is all about.

"It's just a conversation piece" is how Earl Nunneley explains his contribution to the genre. To him, it's no big deal. "Whenever I semi-retired, I just didn't have enough to do." Now in his late 70s, Earl has entertained himself the last decade or so constructing eye-catching works on a plot of land in Saint Jo, near the Oklahoma border.

Although he began the display simply as a way to keep himself busy, it eventually became such an attention-grabber that he was compelled to move the fence back to accommodate parking. Apparently, the sight is especially popular with the motorcycle crowd, who stop there in groups as large as 50 at a time.

Situated on Earl's Running N Ranch, the works are mostly assembled from 35-foot utility poles, which Earl treats like big boys' Popsicle sticks. Towering over the collection are a pair of enormous cacti and what has to be among the world's largest weather vanes. The weather vane weighs three tons, but balances on a one-inch pin.

The most prominent piece and the first one Earl concocted, consists of 14 poles arranged in a fan. Anchored five feet in limestone rock, the array is aligned with the sun to make a single shadow on the vernal and autumnal equinoxes. Why? As his brother Jerry explains it, "It's just one of them things… He just wanted to do it and he done it." At one time, Earl had giant sunflowers in his field assembled, in part, from satellite dishes. Unfortunately, a thunderstorm made quick work of those. "Lightning struck them and just put them into splinters," Earl lamented. He has since replaced the superflowers with smaller versions made of rotary aircraft engines, which he tries to paint different colors each year for a fresh look.

Earl also likes to annually rearrange his ladybugs, five Volkswagens adorned with spots and usually appended with insect legs when they're not being fixed up.

Earl says he has a new item on the drawing board, which he hopes to have up sometime in 2005. That's the most he's willing to divulge on the subject, though, because he likes to keep his ideas a secret until they're completed. All he'll say is, "It's a very nice one… another conversation piece." –Wesley Treat

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