R.I.P. Detroit artist and activist John Sims

The brilliant native son who led an immense and inspired life will be celebrated in Detroit

John Sims. - Jeff Cancelosi
Jeff Cancelosi
John Sims.

Pure genius is not easy. It enters the room with a bang and does not leave quietly. It is every color of the spectrum, electricity and sparkle, yet blunt, like a mallet, boisterous with prickly shards, smoothing, like butter on a burn, charming and loud. It sweeps you into its orbit, sculpting and sharpening your edges. It is exhausting and energizing at once, and you are better, stronger, brighter for having walked into its flame.

From coast to coast and across seas, no one will deny that John Sims was all these things. John Sims was a Detroit-bred, pure, unbridled genius.

On Sunday, Dec. 11, 2022, the world lost a brilliant human being. Born in 1968, Sims grew up on the city’s west side. He attended Detroit public schools and graduated from Renaissance High School in 1986. In a 2017 Metro Times interview he described his younger self as a “big science fair geek” and recounted an early interest in art, mathematics, and politics, as well as attending a vocational school located right behind his high school. He went on to graduate from Antioch College, where he would begin transforming these interests into his life’s work — turning big ideas into even bigger ventures all over the world.

Returning to Antioch as special assistant to the dean of faculty, Sims started out by creating and organizing robust cultural programming that took a diverse group of students to the South to learn about the African American experience. He additionally founded African American Cultural Week (AACW), which evolved into the AACW Blues and Gospel Fest and has gone on to celebrate more than 25 years as an annual event in Ohio.

Sims made Sarasota, Florida, his home when he signed on as coordinator of mathematics at the Ringling College of Art & Design. There, he developed a visual mathematics curriculum where students were taught to communicate ideas of quantity, relationship, symmetry, and pattern through art and design, and curated more than 15 mathematical art exhibitions including the year-long interdisciplinary project Rhythm of Structure: Bowery and Beyond, featuring Sol LeWitt, Karen Finley, Adrian Piper, and former U.S. Poet Laureate Mark Strand, at the Bowery Poetry Club in New York City. Later, as artist in residence at Ringling, he worked on ongoing performance initiatives including projects related to Confederate iconography, visual terrorism, and the COVID-19 pandemic.

click to enlarge SquareRoots: A Quilted Manifesto was a body of colorful math-art quilts based on visual grids corresponding to the number pi, which John Sims created with a team of Amish women. - Courtesy photo
Courtesy photo
SquareRoots: A Quilted Manifesto was a body of colorful math-art quilts based on visual grids corresponding to the number pi, which John Sims created with a team of Amish women.

I was introduced to him by Florence Tate in the early 2000s. Mrs. Tate was a mutual friend and supporter, a consummate socialite and civil rights activist, John’s Sarasota neighbor, and the dynamic birth-mother of our shared New York friend and brother-in-spirit, Greg Tate. Sims was developing SquareRoots: A Quilted Manifesto at the time — a body of colorful math-art quilts based on visual grids corresponding to the number pi, which he’d curiously created with a team of Amish women in Sarasota. I didn’t pretend to fully understand and he never tired of expounding, but the project was vibrant, captivating, and unlike anything I’d previously seen or experienced from an artist. One thing was abundantly clear from the first meeting: This man’s brain was on fire!

His other works at the time included “Time Sculpture” and hand-made chess boards with white kings that could not be dethroned. And, he was at the front of his Confederate flag work, which would evolve and draw both acclaim and outrage throughout his career. While there was no particular math component to Sims’s flag project, he believed that “mathematics give us a starting platform for discussing complex ideas,” from nature to racial differences, history, and injustice. The fundamental idea connecting all his work, he said, is that it gives voice and vision to “political, visual, and philosophical investigation.”

In purposely open and vulnerable spaces throughout the country, and especially the U.S. South, Sims continued to invent courageous exhibitions and performances around the Confederate Flag in a two-decades long project that came to be known as Recoloration Proclamation. He sought to change the interpretation of the flag by recoloring it red, black, and green, or simply black and white. More than 30 different flags were introduced, like the “Drag Flag” (dressed in Boa feathers and installed with high-heeled shoes), or the “Bondage Flag” (as you might imagine, fashioned in S&M leather and chains). The original version of the Confederate flag was to be publicly burned, hung from a noose, eulogized, funeralized, and was, in at least one instance, married to a Confederate soldier. These installations did not come without protest and opposition, which Sims valiantly faced, and welcomed.

John Sims’s Confederate flag work drew both acclaim and outrage. - Courtesy photo
Courtesy photo
John Sims’s Confederate flag work drew both acclaim and outrage.

In 2015, he initiated the Burn and Bury Memorial Day event, The Burn and Bury Video Anthem, and a Confederate Flag Support Kit. The sixth annual performance, held on May 31, 2022 at the Houston Museum of African American Art and Culture, continued the endeavor to create a new tradition inviting all Americans to engage in a space of healing, release, and transformation.

Other visual and musical dramatizations were also designed to reflect alternate views of familiar symbols: As a video component, Sims went on to write The Gettysburg Redress (an emendation of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address) and collaborated with producers, such as DJ Spooky, to create ten different versions of “Dixie,” America’s most famous Southern heritage song. In 2018, the chapbook Ablazing Grace, was published. Its pages offered a visual history of the Confederate flag, Sims’s poetic analysis, and a look at the flag’s ultimate demise. The flag work, which began as early as 2002 and shape-shifted across genres, grew to embrace an army of academic and artistic collaborators from Harlem to the Deep South, Texas, and Florida. Despite the expanse and gravity of this contentious, political work, the artist still made time for the development of new art, writing, friends, and social life.

Like many Detroiters making waves around the nation and abroad, stories of Detroit ruins and rebirth were calling Sims home. When the Irwin House Gallery first thought to open its doors for a tribute to Aretha Franklin after her passing in 2018, Sims was the first to lend his support. The gallery was then a mere idea of an art space, with dirt floors, construction debris, and exposed wires, but Sims immersed himself in the vision, conceptualizing and co-curating an exhibit that imagined Aretha as a force of nature. For the exhibition, Aretha Supernatural: Tribute to a Queen, he contributed a video-poem — “Hurricane Aretha” — a four-minute track he wrote, produced, and performed with background vocals by Sylvia L. Blalock. The show further included visual tributes by artists from Detroit to New York, along with performances and writings by Mahogany Jones, Kim Hunter, and Marsha Music. While there would be numerous high-profile and star-studded tributes to the Queen of Soul to come, this exhibition provided a space for raw, grassroots reflections on Aretha and her impact on local communities.

“When I think of a powerful expression of nature and its complex beauty, I think of a hurricane, with its enormous reach, peaceful center, and capacity to transform boundaries of where land meets water meets air,” Sims wrote in Metro Times, providing background for the project. “After surviving Hurricane Irma… I have come to understand and appreciate the power and soul of nature and its capacity to express the harsh physics and loving spirit of the universe, unaccountable to the whims of human follies and intervention. When I think of the powerful expression of the human supernatural and its complex majesty, I think also of Aretha Franklin, a blessed hurricane of love, soul, and justice.”

For the ’60s-themed closing reception in early 2019, Sims flew in with a techno remix and vinyl prototype of the track, with music by Michal Rizman. Although he had been supporting the exhibition for several months, it was his first in-person visit to the gallery.

Later that year, Sims returned to Irwin House for a one-month residency and co-headlined a book-signing and reading event with M.L. Liebler in the space. He had been a contributor to the book, Respect: The Poetry of Detroit Music, a collection of poems and lyrics celebrating Detroit’s incredible musical history edited by Liebler and Jim Daniels. There was a launch event at Third Man Records in which Sims performed with a colorful cast brought to life from the book’s pages. However, the main focus of Sims’s stay was for the development of a multimedia project on the west-side block he grew up on at Sorrento and W. Chicago. He was serious and passionate about the undertaking.

Having returned home a few years earlier to find his home block in near shambles, with only a few of its original residents remaining, including his mother, Sims was compelled to recapture the memories and the life of the neighborhood. The project would begin with recording and filming historical narratives from the block’s current and past residents and working on the development of an exhibition of copper etchings of each home in its original glory.

During his one-month stay and just one week into the residency, Sims tragically and unexpectedly lost his mother, Joyce Cartwright Sims, who was, for obvious reasons, the heart of the project. A funeral was planned and proceeded and, powering through his grief, Sorrento: Portrait of a Detroit Block pushed forward. Screenings, book-signings, and talks that took place throughout the residency left audiences titillated and awe-stricken. A surprise 80th birthday celebration was even held for the Sorrento block’s matriarch, Ms. Rosie, and, as part of the gallery’s sophomore exhibition, Detroit Future History, Sims’s video-poem “D-City Blues” offered sobering visual and verbal commentary on the state of Detroit’s forgotten neighborhoods.

One phrase in the poem, “uncelebrated west-side sunsets” reminds us of the majesty of the city’s seldom noticed backdrops — a wealth of natural scenery not often associated with the likes of gritty Detroit. The poem goes on to address the effects of NAFTA and questions the dwindled population, but this line resounds in my mind each time I am fortunate enough to witness a waft of pink and purple hues settling over I-96. It is John pointing out the masterpiece that still is Detroit.

Sims appears twice in Metro Times during this period, including a thoughtful and personal piece he penned on the Sorrento block, and the value of our memories and neighborhoods. The article, “Don’t forget the block,” sums up with a cautionary word: “As Detroit transforms, we must not forget the stories, the physical spaces and folks of the neighborhood block, where the rhythm and soul of the city resides and from where the future shall flow.”

There were no bounds to Sims’s intellect and imagination, the connections he made, bonds formed, and the push, not only to enfold creative and academic communities around the world into his world, but for all of us to excel and ignite our own particular genius. Sims was his own biggest, loudest cheerleader yet, with the same verve and volume, he praised and bolstered the work of others — friends, colleagues, causes… and all he considered to be just.

Artist and philanthropist Danny Simmons recalls meeting Sims almost 20 years ago at the Bowery Poetry Club. Then, at the beginning of his journey as a poet, Simmons was asked to read one of his poems and was nervous. Sims sat next to him offering reassuring words and a friendship was formed. Fast-forward two decades and Sims’s image has just appeared on the cover of Tribes magazine’s “Black Lives Matter” issue, which Simmons curated (November 2022).

“We were both beaming,” Simmons shares, adding that they had just finalized the details for a New York exhibition when he received the news of the artist’s passing.

“I was stunned and am still stunned and will be for quite a while,” he says. “John was a strong, clear, and continual voice for social justice and liberation. A warrior, really, who used art as his weapon. The survey exhibition we scheduled will now be a memorial show with a wider survey of artists. So many of us in the community are reeling from his passing. The exhibition, hosted by A Gathering of the Tribes and company, and curated by Halima Taha, will seek to continue to lift John up in admiration with our love for the man.”

click to enlarge Members of Detroit’s arts community honored John Sims during a memorial at Irwin House Gallery. - se7enfifteen
Members of Detroit’s arts community honored John Sims during a memorial at Irwin House Gallery.

Sabrina Nelson may have been one of the only Detroit creatives to actually set foot in Sims’s Sarasota studio. She says her “heART” led her to visit every January when her work with College for Creative Studies took her to the area. When Sims was in Detroit they would sometimes hang at her home and studio, exchanging creative ideas. Sims had presented a Woodward Lecture at CCS in 2016 and Nelson remembered a presentation of his AfroDixie remixes at the DIA the following year. She spoke about brainstorming with Sims for a “Burn and Bury” ceremony he was planning at N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art on Memorial Day of 2017, as the city was preparing for the 50th anniversary of the 1967 riots. The event went on to include prominent area ministers, poets, and activists including Liebler, Jennifer Harge, Kim Hunter, Monica Lewis-Patrick, jessica Care moore, Rev. Jeff Nelson, and Rev. Charles E. Williams II. “He was brilliant and loved his connection here,” Nelson adds. “He was a gentle giant.”

Marsha Music recounts meeting Sims when he presented a “fascinating talk on math and race.” She, too, had attended his equally fascinating AfroDixie production at the DIA and described “various Black artists singing soul iterations of the song Dixie, acknowledging and transcending its confederate association, appropriating the song’s familiar musicality.” She said she began to read about his work around the country.

“He was engaging in a social practice that was indefatigable and bold,” she says. “We became friends online and talked about our work, the work of others, and, more recently, about the possibility of his having another exhibit in Detroit. He was a genius, a phenom, a towering Black man with soaring hair, formidable in presence and intellect. He leaves a space in the arts that only he had occupied, and he will be missed.”

Journalist KyleeliseTHT was a Floridian friend and collaborator of Sims. Their work together included transcribing and archiving his ideas, but she emphasized that Sims pushed her as much to find and share her own creative voice.

“John’s love of his home city was so infectious that I marveled at his vision of what some people believed was a city in decay, that John knew had so much potential,” she shares. “John saw it as a city of hope and possibility.”

Sims’s projects are spread out, complex, and manifold. Certainly, I have failed to touch on many of his career highlights, including the Pi Day Anthem he produced with Vi Hart and his 35th annual Pi Day residency at San Francisco’s Exploratorium, his 2021 residency at La Mama Experimental Theater in New York, and his most recent sculpture project, wrought from scrap metal salvaged from John Chamberlain’s demolished studio, a tribute to the late artist and the loss of creative space.

There was also that time he boycotted his own show in Gettysburg, and more recently when was arrested at gunpoint during a 2021 residency in South Carolina. There are scores more accomplishments, accolades, and supremely remarkable moments in the giant life and times of John Sims, who lectured and produced programs and exhibitions not only nationally but internationally in countries such as France, Hungary, Spain, Slovenia, Israel, and Argentina. His work has been featured locally as well as in The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, CNN, NBC News, The Guardian, The Root, ThinkProgress, Al Jazeera, Guernica, Art in America, Transition, Sculpture, FiberArts, Science News, and the science journal Nature. He has written for major publications such as CNN, Al Jazeera, The Huffington Post, Guernica, The Rumpus, and The Grio. One thing for certain, however, is that Sims was committed to deepening his ties to Detroit and bringing nearly three decades of artistic and cultural genius home.

click to enlarge Members of Detroit’s arts community honored John Sims during a memorial at Irwin House Gallery. - se7enfifteen
Members of Detroit’s arts community honored John Sims during a memorial at Irwin House Gallery.

He was hopeful about the prospect of turning his mother’s Sorrento home into a public, creative space and he was exploring staging a Detroit version of The Square Root of Love — an annual evening of candle-lit poetry featuring guest artists and including Sims’s own signature wine, which he had presented on Valentine’s Day in New York, Paris, and Sarasota. Additionally, we had our eyes open for a vertical wall within the city to erect a mural inspired by Sims’s “Korona Killa” video game and marking the events and life-altering social facets of 2020. Sims was very specific about where the wall should be and how it should look, and we were determined to find it. Of course, we thought we had time.

On the flip side of the shock and sadness of losing a pal and ally lies an earnest celebration in having had an opportunity to know the man that was John Sims.

Sims was excellent. Period. And to be in his great presence, you had to be excellent. He demanded it. He coaxed it. He inspired it. He supported it. I am grateful for the knowing, for the time spent, the ideas exchanged, the disagreements even, the projects realized together and the possibilities, still, for the future. His big booming voice rings, I am sure, in the heads of all of us who grew with him over the years. And, that voice reminds us that we had better do it right… whatever it may be.

As much as I will be protecting and moving forward unfinished Sims concepts in Detroit, I can only imagine how many irons he had in fires around the world. He made time to talk with, plan, and collaborate widely in a swelling circle of agents and allies. With reverence and gratitude for his life in our hearts, we will all be doing the work.

“This is legacy work,” KyleeliseTHT points out.

John Sims may have left the planet, but his life has not ended.

“John is a son of the city — a true spirit of Detroit,” says his brother, Aaron Sims. “Born in a city with a rich tradition of social justice and activism and raised in an era of fearless leadership, John, like many Detroiters, was destined to travel into the world to fight the good fight, start the good trouble, and speak truth to power. His life’s work reveals a life well-lived. As a native son and brother, he has made us all proud. We plan to bring him home and share his legacy with generations to come.”

A memorial celebration of the immense and inspired life of John Sims will be held from 6-8 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 6, 2023 at Irwin House Gallery; 2351 W. Grand Blvd. (between LaSalle & Linwood) Detroit; 313-932-7690; irwinhousegallery.org. An interment ceremony will follow, at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, Jan. 7, 2023 at the historic Detroit Memorial Park Cemetery East, 4280 E. 13 Mile Rd.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be sent to organizations that Sims supported, including Irwin House Gallery and Halo Arts Project – Angels for Artists.

You can learn more about the artist and his work at johnsimsprojects.com.

click to enlarge Members of Detroit’s arts community honored John Sims during a memorial at Irwin House Gallery. - se7enfifteen
Members of Detroit’s arts community honored John Sims during a memorial at Irwin House Gallery.

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Omo Misha

Omo Misha means “Misha’s children” in Yoruba. It is a name that has come to identify curator and artist, Misha McGlown, and her myriad creative endeavors. A native of Detroit who dwells between Harlem, NY, and the Motor City, Misha has enjoyed a multi-faceted career in the arts and education. She is a two-time...
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