In the democratic, open-armed world of outsider art, his lark of a dream began to come true. People started buying his paintings, which grew increasingly self-assured and cheerfully eccentric. He charged $20 apiece.
“I realized that the folk art scene is really one big family where people look out for each other,” says Granger, who was living south of Griffin. “They also like to party!”
Granger became a popular fixture at the Doo-nanny, an annual folk art festival that, until it collapsed of its own storied excesses, was sort of a Southern Gothic Burning Man by way of Alabama.
“Sam became known for what he called his ‘Elvis Riding a Freedom Chicken,’” says Margaret Allen, referring to his painting of the jump-suited King riding a red, white and blue, star-spangled chicken. Allen is the author of “When the Spirit Speaks: Self-Taught Art of the South” and a collector who owns several of Granger’s pieces. “It’s been interesting to see how he has evolved and innovated. He’s very laidback, humorous and whimsical, and his message is a simple one: Love one another.”
Granger eventually split with his wife and moved to the mountains of north Georgia. Appalachian people proved clannish, though. Also, he did not care for the galleries that were sniffing around him, trying to exercise control.
“I really didn’t like the way the world was going, so I decided to make my own,” Granger says.
In 2016, he took his self-expression to an exuberant new level by creating World Famous SamG Land, a compound outside Clarkesville classified by creatives as an “art environment,” teeming with phantasmagoric creatures. You could think of Granger, who has shoulder-length hair, as Howard Finster’s groovy, hippie grandson, but that comparison rankles him.
“I’m not trying to be the next Howard Finster,” he says, standing beside one of many self-portraits that use peace symbols for eyes. “I’m trying to be the next me.”
It’s an odd place, in many respects, tucked away behind a gas station in thick woods. The only way in and out is a ramp near the diesel pumps. Visitors are immediately assailed by naked mannequins with bucket heads (“my mail-order brides”); large insects made from farm implements; glassy-eyed, moldering doll heads; and lots of signs, some with salty language like “Stop the Dumbassery.”
“Look, I’m a smart (aleck),” he says. “But I believe God is love.”
Granger is also a cuddly egotist and mischievous contrarian. “I can talk about myself all day,” he says, “and I can out-flirt anybody.” His politics are left-of-center; he made a “portrait” of Kelly Loeffler, the Republican politico known for her long mane, using a mop.
“There’s such a sweetness and silliness to his work,” says collector and fashion designer Anita Shegog. “Nothing is trash to him. Everything has a purpose – a joyful purpose.”
Granger’s outsized installation artwork reflects his boyish enthusiasms, using reclaimed materials: robots, dinosaurs, snakes, preachers, toilets (more on that later), aquariums, mermaids, Willie Nelson and devils, which he says “represent the women in my life”. There is “Gnome Henge”; the “Nipple of Hopefulness” made from a large ice bucket; a six-foot Coca-Cola bottle used in the Atlanta Olympics; and a weirdly poignant “graveyard of coffee mugs.”
“People kept telling me I needed to do a bottle tree, so I just dumped a bunch of bottles out and named it ‘future bottle tree,’” he says.
The magic happens in his studio, the “Mothership,” designed to look like what he calls a giant space slug. A trail spiked with unsettling eye candy winds behind the house he shares with his girlfriend, potter Lorri Penn, and a three-legged poodle named DooDoo. There is, seemingly, no unadorned surface, no swatch of beige anywhere. Think psychedelic “Sanford & Son.”
Granger also likes labels; he appends them to everything, even naturally occurring features – “tree,” “dead tree.” “The naming of things makes them epic,” he says. In fact, one piece of mysterious “found art” – some might say garbage — bears this legend: “I found this on the side of GA 400 on Christmas Day 2017. I figured I would paint some sort of deep spiritual revelation from the universe on it or something … but … nope.”
“Being around Sam is a happy, colorful experience that is translated into all he creates,” says Clarissa Starnes, associate director of the Hickory Museum of Art in North Carolina, which features Granger’s work in its permanent collection. “He is always producing, always considering and hunting new materials for his creations, even living in an environment that has become a tourist attraction.”
His compound was also just included in "A Guide to The South's Quirkiest Roadside Attractions" (Arcadia Publishing, $16.05) by Kelly Kazek.
In 2017, after a regimen of consuming several pots of a coffee a day and chain-smoking menthol cigarettes, Granger suffered an aortic rupture. “I damn near died on the (toilet) just like Elvis,” he says. He immediately incorporated the toilet lid into his art.
“It slowed me down,” he says. “Today I’m less work-horse than show pony.”
One thing that sets Granger apart from other creators of art environments is the ephemeral nature of his work. “Most self-taught artists have a message, often a religious message, and want their work to live on after they die,” says Fred Scruton, a professor of art at Edinboro University. “Sam really doesn’t care about that; it’s all about the experience to him. I would call him a second-generation postmodernist. He’s a wise-guy amusing himself, and us along with him, just for the pleasure of a chuckle.”
The highfalutin mantel of postmodernist may not rest easily on Granger’s shoulders, but he doesn’t disagree with Scruton’s assessment. Sweeping his hand toward his crazy kingdom he says: “This is not the art. I am the art. This stuff is just souvenirs. After I’m gone, tear it down.”
IF YOU GO
World Famous SamG Land. Generally open all the time, but call first if you want a tour. Donations welcome. 1390 Tom Born Road, Clarkesville. Traveling north on US 23 from Clarkesville, exit at Tom Born Road and turn left, then take an immediate right into the gas station. Take the small ramp to the right, next to the diesel pumps, and follow the road into the woods. 706-949-3504.