MAXWELL:  Artistic activism

1/31/1999 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Through his work, artist John Sims strives to show African-Americans new ways of thinking about the world and about themselves.

John Sims is the coordinator of mathematics at Ringling School of Art and Design, where he teaches a visual mathematics curriculum designed for art students. He is also internationally respected in mathematical art and ethnomathematics.

This biographical sketch of 30-year-old Sims, at the outset, is important so as to understand his mission _ and method. The man himself, his job and his art suggest a seamless tapestry of intellectuality, creativity and social activism.

“I don’t buy into this left brain/right brain thing of art on one side and math on the other,” said Sims, who calls himself a math artist. “Most people think that art and math are very separate, but they don’t have to be. I want to present math as a creative enterprise and show that it can be taught creatively and visually.”

With Black History Month beginning on Monday, Sims’ emerging role in local, national and international math and visual arts is worth noting and will interest most art lovers who value broad diversity in human society and in nature. Here, he said during a recent showing at the Sarasota Visual Arts Center, mathematics and art intersect.

“My work is about being able to bring together communities and also using objects around us to tell stories,” Sims said. “We learn best and we get excited about things that we’re slightly familiar with. They provide a platform for new discovery. If I show you something that you’ve already seen, it’s boring. . . . But if I show you something you’re slightly familiar with on another level, then it becomes an act of movement _ discovery. Then, if the process in itself is a new technology or technique, then you can apply that in other places. . . . The focus of the artist is to bring new vision and analysis to the world around us.”

Some of the familiar objects that best reflect the essence of human life include vases, chess sets, chairs and clocks. His work, then, enables viewers to see that everyday objects around them tell stories, some of which “encode very incredible, very often awful things,” he said.

The chess set, where the white pieces move first, is an example. “I think that’s incredibly awful,” Sims said. “It is not essential to the game that white moves first. It is not essential to the game that you have cowboys and Indians, Jews versus Christians, Incas versus Spaniards. A lot of the things around us speak to our subconscious soul and reinforce these attitudes of heirarchies even against our own will and knowledge.”

The role of the artist is to challenge all such notions, he said. And the African-American artist may have an especially significant role to play in ridding society of what Sims calls “contaminants.” Chess is emblematic of society’s color consciousness, he said.

“It makes no sense if I, an African-American, go off and march for equality and justice and go and play chess with my kid and tell him that white moves first,” he said. “It is inconsistent to me. And, then, as an African-American, you have to explain this concept to non-African-Americans, white Americans in particular, that you’re not too sensitive. You’re told that black and white pieces are just arbitrary. If it’s so arbitrary, why not flip a coin before you play in competition chess to see if black or white moves first, not to see who moves first with white?”

One of Sims’ answers? His Chess Set for the Color Blind has pieces that are all the same color, which eliminates the need for white to go first.

A Detroit native, graduate of Antioch College in Ohio and a Ph.D. candidate in math at Wesleyan University, Sims is a former member of the Young Socialist Alliance. The term “colonial” _ which expresses repression _ comes easily as he discusses the objects in his work in relationship to contemporary America.

A clock, for example, which is central to his Constructing the TimeSculpture collection, is a perfect symbol of the colonial.

“When I walk into someone’s house and see a grandfather clock, it makes me remember a time I don’t want to remember,” Sims said. “It brings me back to a time that I find very disgusting in American history. But I’ve got black friends, who, when they make a lot of money, go off and buy a grandfather clock. It makes no sense to me. . . . We need some new clocks for a new time.”

The chair, another familiar object, is loaded with positive and negative traits. “In addition to marriage and the family, chairs have always been an indicator of power and cruelty, from the electric chair to the throne,” Sims said.

As simple and as beautiful as vases can be, they also hold harmful meanings. They suggest, for example, collecting nature and bringing it into the human environment so that we can control it.

“To bring (nature’s) aesthetic into my environment reverses the relationship of humans versus nature,” Sims said. “It’s a reaction to our general impotence when it comes to nature. So the basis is how we seek to arrange and dominate nature.”

Sims said that much of his artistic vision comes directly out of his African-American heritage and struggle. His objective is to break down barriers with his art, to infiltrate institutions and expose their harmful power. He wants to show African-Americans new ways of thinking about the world and about themselves.

Most blacks, he said, have adopted a European aesthetic in style, art, fashion and even in social areas. “In most communities, it’s natural to have a sense of what is beautiful, what defines success,” Sims said. “But African-Americans define success the way everyone else defines success, how they define art, high art, low art. So we’re trapped. . . .

“People can have no money and still have a sense of their own aesthetic, of what is beautiful. That’s an incredible kind of power. So, in some sense, my work is about inspiring people to imagine and to create, to create the artist within themselves, which will lead to a collective conceptual revolution. . . . If you create, especially from scratch, no one can take that away from you, whether it’s words, objects, music.”

In 2000, Sims intends to strategically place his TimeSculpture collection throughout Manhattan to show viewers his vision of the connectedness between art and time in the next millennium. He then will take the collection to other parts of the country. And most recently, he showed his work in Israel and Spain.

“I think artists have the opportunity to raise awareness on many different levels,” Sims said. “It’s important to realize the different levels of existence, to see connections, the symmetry and inform your existence as a world citizen, as a human part of the planet. Artists plant crystals that allow future historians to figure out what it really means to be alive now. We prepare people for the future.”

Bill Maxwell is a Times columnist