Carroll Harris Simms

The African Queen Mother, 1968, Carroll Harris Simms
Carroll Harris Simms

Carroll Harris Simms was born on April 29, 1924 in Bald Knob, Arkansas. A city that was named after a treeless rocky ridge that served as a landmark to pioneers. His parents, Tommie and Rosa Hazel Harris Simms, previously had a daughter named Margaret, then a little later, Rosa became pregnant with Carroll – but before Carroll’s birth, Rosa’s husband, Tommie, left the family, leaving Rosa to fend for herself with a young daughter and a child on the way. Carroll never knew his father and after his birth, Rosa packed up her two young children and returned to her parents’ home.

Regarding their stay with his grandparents, Simms said, “We were taught to be proud that we were Negroes… that the South was our homeland… that if we got an education, we should stay in the South afterwards and strive to better the condition of other Negroes by teaching them.”

Simms’ great-grandfather, who was a freed slave, astonishingly, became the first school master of a school called, “The Bald Knob Special School for Negros.” It was the same school his grandparents attended. It was the school his mother, Rosa, attended. And so, Simms and his sister attended this heritage school as well.

Later, Simms would recount that the budding flame behind his wanting to be an artist, was partially fanned by observing his grandmother quilting and embroidering – and partially from witnessing his grandfather making roofing shingles with an ax – like carving.

But back in 1938, during the Depression, Simms’ mother, Rosa, was in search for better opportunities for her and her children, so she packed up her babies again and moved to Toledo, Ohio, to stay with a great uncle who was a Baptist minister.

In Toledo, Simms attended Jesup Wakeman Scott High School, where Ethel Elliot, a teacher, encouraged his study of art, even as some members of his own family didn’t see it as such a great idea. Afterall, it wasn’t very practical.

Collaborating with her sister who worked at Hampton Institute, now known as Hampton University, Elliot helped Simms get a scholarship at Hampton in 1944.

Simms later said, “Hampton was a cultural shock to me. I’d never realized Negroes had an ordered institution anywhere. Just to look at the place was to see a beautiful holy city.”

So, it is here, where Simms learned about other African American artists for the first time – artists like Charles White and Hale Woodruff – who you might recall we discussed briefly in a previous episode about Emma Amos.

While studying in the art department, Simms tried his hand in painting on canvas. Of course, he did. He wasn’t really feeling it though. He treated the paint light clay, pushing it around the canvas. And I don’t know how he managed it, but he even ended up accidentally putting holes in the first canvas.

However, he did receive encouragement from Joe Gilliard, though. Gilliard guided Simms toward sculpture and ceramics, and Gilliard himself attended Hampton and was the first in his family to go to college. And after graduating, Gilliard landed a teaching position there at the college which was interrupted only briefly to serve in the Navy.

And just as Gilliard did when he was an undergraduate, Simms resonated with Viktor Lowenfeld’s art philosophy of self – identification and it boosted Simms’ confidence. Viktor Lowenfeld was an Austrian-born psychologist and art education professor who became a faculty member at Hampton Institute (which is of course now Hampton University) in 1939 – first as an assistant professor of Industrial arts, but later, became Chairman of the art department.

Anyway, Gilliard, the ceramics professor who rescued Simms from paint and canvas, also introduced Simms to John Biggers – another notable artist who would become instrumental in future collaborations and educating future generations of Black artists at Texas Southern University. That would come later.

However, when Simms first met Biggers, Biggers was still in the Navy then, but had managed to arrange to go back to Hampton to study and paint.

By 1945, though, Simms began to also study at Toledo University and the Toledo Museum School of Fine Arts, simultaneously. I tried to find out more about the Toledo Museum School of Fine Arts, but I didn’t find much. I did find that the Toledo Museum of Art had a Center for Visual arts that is currently connected to Toledo University. But it was created in the 90’s so… I’m not sure what happened to the Museum School.

Whatever the case, when the museum school existed, a woman named Molly Lockhart McKelvey, who was also a patron of the Toledo Museum School of Fine Arts helped Simms become the first African American to get a scholarship there.

A woman named Alda A. Ashley, who had employed Simms’ mom Rosa, as a domestic worker, hosted his first one-man show in her living room.

Simms must’ve been a really fantastic dude with some righteous karma, because, McKelvey, along with another of Rosa’s former employers, Idine Ayers – who also happened to be friends with the director of Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan – helped Simms get a scholarship to Cranbrook too.

Initially, at Cranbrook, because of segregation, Simms wasn’t allowed to live in the dorm for some reason though he was allowed to attend the school, so he lived in a room over the embalming room of a Black Funeral Home 6 miles away and he was so freaked out by this living situation that, sometimes, he’d rather sleep in the woods then in his own room. Fortunately, some of his classmates were sympathetic to his plight and drove him home at night.  I don’t know if one night they couldn’t drive him home or what happened, but this one night, his friends snuck him into the dormitory to sleep instead of dropping him off and when the school administration found out about it and saw that no one was up in arms about it, they ended dormitory segregation.

He won first prizes in sculpture at the Toledo Museum exhibitions in 1948 then again in 1949. My sources didn’t reveal which works won – unfortunately I don’t have that info. I can say, that at Cranbrook, Simms also met a few famous people. For example, he met the Japanese American painter, photographer and printmaker, Yasuo Kuniyoshi. He also met the Ukrainian American abstract sculptor and graphic artist, Alexander Archipenko and the Nobel Prize winning writer, John Steinbeck. You might recall, Steinbeck wrote great novels like, “The Grapes of Wrath” and “Of Mice and Men.” All this took place when Simms was personally invited to the home of Zoltan Sepeshy, the Cranbrook director.

Sepeshy saw that Simms was a shy guy and nudged him to overcome it while meeting these creatives, because, of course this was a rare opportunity for Simms learn from them. In 1950, a professorship in sculpture and Ceramics became available at Texas Southern University and sculptor and animalier, William Mozart McVeigh, one of Sims sculpting professors, highly recommended Simms.

I think it’s important to note that Simms held a different philosophy regarding ceramics. He considered ceramics equally artistic in value as sculpture and disagreed with ceramics being classified as a craft.

John Thomas Biggers had joined the Texas Southern University faculty the previous year in 1949 and was the founding chairman of their art Department. At the time, most of the Black students struggled to comprehend academic sculptural terms, so Simms used a donut to explain sculptural concepts like volume and space.  And he used the sun’s creation of the shadow of a tree to explain the term, “abstract.”

Simms said later, “It would have been impossible then to communicate with students in academic terms and we would have frightened away art students from the beginning if we hadn’t been rurally oriented ourselves.”

In 1952, Simms took first prize in silkscreen textile design at the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts. And in 1953, he won first prize in jewelry in Cranbrook’s Purchase Prize.

From 1954 to 1956, he was awarded a Fulbright scholarship and studied at the Slade, that’s the Slade School of Fine Art, London’s leading art school at the time. He studied under sculptors F.E. McWilliam, a Northern Irish surrealist sculptor; the English sculptor, Reginald Butler and the school’s head, William Coldstream. Please know, that Simms took full advantage of this opportunity and soaked up as much as he could, including institutions outside of Slade.

For example, he also studied at the Royal College of Art; The Central School of Arts and Crafts and the Morris Singer Bronze Foundry, where he worked as an apprentice to the provocative British American sculptor, Jacob Epstein.

In London, pretty regularly, Simms visited the British Museum’s display of Ashanti gold weights and carved ivory, then one day, while examining these works, he was approached by a man named, William Fagg, the Museum’s expert on African art.

When Fagg learned that Simms was an American sculptor, Fagg was elated and began to tutor Simms on African art that day (over tea of course) and for the rest of Simms stay in England. Fagg allowed Simms to view some of the museums uncatalogued collections of African sculptures too.

Of course, these days there is a lot of controversy over this museum having these items in the first place because most of it, was stolen. Another episode perhaps.

Years later when Simms was introduced to an Oba in Benin, the Oba apparently was amused to meet Simms. The Oba was tickled to see that Simms, an African-American, looked so much like him. After returning to the United States, Simms was deeply inspired and created a bronze, titled “Homage to a Shrine,” a two-piece sculpture that contains elements of sacred Benin work. It found a home in the Royal Palace of the Oba of Benin. Is it there today? I’m not sure.

Slade (the Slade School of Fine Art) gave him insight into great European art, which was great – Simms totally appreciated it. However, Simms’ lessons with Fagg at the museum gave Simms greater inspiration and insight into African mythology which he loved. As a professor at TSU, he avoided showing slides of Benin, Ibo, Nok and other African sculpture to his students, initially, because he didn’t want his students to just imitate these works without understanding and developing the creative processes that produced such work. He wanted their art to develop from their individual universes.

He encouraged students to find themselves in the character traits of various animals in African folklore and mythology and pushed them to make symbolic representations of their own characters using the African creatures – free to explore their own insights about themselves, their desires and how they wanted to move in the world.

Over time Simms’ own sculptures became more and more symbolic and abstract, and being very religious, he found inspiration in spirituals and their symbology.

For the Texas Southern University science building, Sims constructed a huge winged aluminum figure that appeared to be moving towards circling planet rings. He described it as a high relief sculpture with conventional geometric and organic forms inspired by certain Negro Spirituals.

Some of Simms’ works were fountains. For example, there is the one titled, “Woman with a Bird,” a 3 ft x 20-inch bronze abstract fountain at the University of Houston; and then there’s “Jonah and the Whale,” a 6-ft bronze.

He also liked to switch it up and express himself through a variety of materials, like stained glass windows in his work titled, “The Doves and the Sacrament,” for a private chapel. He used plexiglass for a mural titled, “Longshoreman,” in Houston. For the Dowling Veterinary Clinic, he created a colorful plexiglass mural of African animals.

One of his major works, “The African Queen Mother,” a 12 ft by 4 ft by 17 ft bronze created in 1968, was composed of symbolic elements from West African folklore. He also designed the circular reflecting pool in front of the Martin Luther King Center of Communications at Texas Southern.

Simms traveled to Nigeria in 1968 to 1969 to experience, for himself, the social and religious significance of African sculpture. He then made another trip in 1973. Here, in Nigeria, he was moved to find that a sociologist, Akinsola A. Akiwowo, of the University of Ibadan and the Nigerian Museum officials didn’t use the word art and instructed Simms to refer to sculpture or pottery as sacred objects or antiquities.

They weren’t called “curators,” they were known as “custodians of tradition and culture” and had the same reverence as priests.

In the 1971 book titled, “African Art,” Frank Willett, another student of William Fagg, does acknowledge the reverence and use of sacred objects but is not so general as to lump all of these objects under the category of sacred.  There were sculptures – for example, brass sculptures that the Dan people created, that were displayed in homes to show off the status of a person or family – as brass was then considered a semi-precious metal.

But maybe these works, weren’t what Simms gravitated to, because he has said, quote, “All of what we call sculpture exist for a purpose. In the United States, we open our King James Bible to find chapter and verses. There when you look at a carving or even at some sacred hill or sacred tree on the landscape you will find the proverbial wisdom of the ancestors.”

Simms identified three major turning points in his development, quote “First the realization of certain permanent values which relate to the integrity of my grandparents inclusive of church folk and neighbors surrounding the environment of my early childhood, second, studies at the Toledo Museum of Art; Hampton Institute; Cranbrook Art Academy and in Africa and Europe third, working at TSU and at the same time being allowed the privilege of creating art for the community.”

Simms was able to see his world poetically and the expression of this world found inspiration from, quote, “As a result of Agriculture: the symphony of folklore – remembering the fable and poetry of the rainbow; the continuity of seasons; the forms shapes and colors of planting and harvest – the carving and tempering of farm tools – quilt making; sewing and embroidery – to wash; to cook; to share in the disciplines of domestic order and during childhood; having learned through worship a reverence for creation: genetically, a search for form and imagery was inspired.”

He retired from teaching in 1987 and returned to England for a new look at the African Collections and work of its sculptors.

One of his deep regrets was that he wasn’t able to set up a foundry at TSU. He said, quote, “I wanted a foundry to teach students how to cast small figures eight or nine inches high so they would understand what their African ancestors achieved centuries ago, but I never got the support to do that and I still regret it.”

Carroll Harris Simms ascended to the ancestors on February 1st, 2010, at the age of 85. Still, his spirit and philosophies lives on through his work, where he found the greatest inspiration through his family who helped nurture a pride for his people. He listened with his heart and eyes to the stories and lessons of his ancestors.

Simms described art as, quote, “The universal spiritual force that makes the dignity, the heritage and origin of Black culture inseparable from all existence.”

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