(Editor’s Note: This story was originally reported for and published by the Evanston Roundtable, a neighboring independent newsroom , and was shared with The Record as part of a collaborative effort.)
During Black History Month, Evanston artist Jevoid Simmons has partnered with the North Shore Senior Center in Northfield to display 17 of his most personal works depicting his family’s migration out of rural Alabama under the threat of racial violence in the early 1950s.
The paintings on display support the written narrative of Up From Down Home, The Journey North, a book Simmons wrote in 2021 that chronicles his family’s move from Greenville, Alabama, to Davenport, Iowa.
Simmons was one of 16 children – 18 including two premature infants who died after birth. His father worked in a sawmill until the family was forced to leave the South.
Simmons’ exhibit at the center also includes 21 wood carvings.
“All of the people in the carving are family members, with the exception of one lone white man, who he [Simmons’ father] considers family,” Simmons explained. “He was a neighbor who had a farm on the adjoining plot of land. He warned my pop that he needed to get out of town because the [Ku Klux] Klan was going to kill him. He was a friend, and he wanted to make sure we got away. And we did.”
Simmons’ affinity for creating art started when he was in grade school. He said making art was a means to escape the challenges he faced living with dyslexia. On one occasion, he said, his second-grade teacher slapped him in front of the class for hiding a failed math test on the way home from school.
Simmons said that he worked through these challenges and graduated with honors in high school and college.
“In the early years, and now, art has fed my soul,” Simmons said.
Work and family
Simmons said his paintings are a way to help document his family’s history, since the gap between the youngest and the oldest is an entire generation. They were helpful in connecting the dots for his younger siblings, he said, after their father and mother died young, at ages 51 and 52, respectively.
Upon his mother’s death in 1976, Simmons became guardian for nine minor siblings. He was working as a probation officer for juvenile boys at that time, and got help and support from his older brothers and younger adult sisters.
After several years, an older brother, living in Des Moines, Iowa, came to visit Simmons and told him, “I’m going to take the girls. You need to go out and get a life.”
Simmons took a job working for Central Telephone Co. in Pekin, Illinois, a town where Simmons said he endured racial slurs hurled at him daily by people on the street. Within a year he was promoted to the company’s headquarters in Chicago.
For most of Simmons’ life, art took a back seat to his various jobs – first as a telephone operator, then a business office staff supervisor and in employee relations, then with Northwestern Memorial Hospital as director of workforce diversity, and finally at the Art Institute of Chicago, where he worked as director of employee relations and training until retiring in 2018.
“I was working hard, earning a living, and figured at some point people would figure out that I was really an artist just posing in these positions,” he said.
It was not until 2015, nearly 20 years after moving to Evanston that Simmons created wood carvings and paintings that held the story of his family history, later chronicled in his book. Conceived in his top-floor studio in his house on Darrow Avenue, his paintings sat in the closet for the next few years, because, Simmons said modestly, “I wasn’t a showing artist or anything like that.”
Art on display
Simmons said it was Evanston antique and folk art store owner Harvey Pranian who encouraged him to bring his art to the public.
“I love antiques and folk arts, and I would visit Harvey’s shop and we kind of got to know each other,” Simmons said.
“Years later, he [learned] that I had these paintings and he and a friend wanted to look at them. So, I took the paintings out, 17 of them,” Simmons said, adding that Prainan swore and said, “What the hell are you doing with all of this? These should be seen!'”
This led to Simmons’ first show, in 2015, at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center, where he displayed the 17 family paintings and various family and friends woodcarvings – all curated by Pranian.
“You know, I’d never seen my artwork in that way,” Simmons said. “And so that was kind of the start. It was amazing for me because I never considered myself an artist, just a person that made art. I wasn’t making a living at it, and never have.”
Because his paintings and carvings depict his family, and his family’s history, they are not for sale at any price.
Simmons said he’s had offers – one in particular from an individual who wanted to purchase the carving of family and friends gathered around the old church down home.
“I told him it wasn’t for sale, and the guy kept pestering me about it,” Simmons recalled. “So, I said, ‘$250,000, because I think my family would appreciate that.’ The guy laughed and said, ‘OK, so it’s not for sale then, right.'”
Giving back to the community
In addition to creating art, Simmons dedicates his free time to art instruction, specifically working with young boys in Camp Kuumba, a free Evanston summer program designed to give Black and Brown youth in grades 3-8 opportunities to discover themselves and the world around them. The camp includes team-building exercises; sports, arts, reading, financial literacy and STEM activities; and community service projects.
“The program exposes kids to the possibilities, and provides skills and traits to aid future success,” Simmons said. “I’m not a teacher necessarily, but I encourage the boys to explore with art for expression and self-reflection, to show who they really are and where they want to be.
“I want them to dream their future.”
“It’s a good program, and it’s something I want to be involved in because everybody along the way needs help somewhere,” Simmons said. “Sometimes it’s just a little something that might be needed to be on the right path.”
The public is invited to meet Jevoid Simmons and view his artwork at a reception from 4 to 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 7, at the NSSC Art Gallery, 161 Northfield Road in Northfield. To RSVP, contact Debra Mell at email@example.com or call (847) 784-6037.
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