Longtime Sarasota artist John Sims died near his home on Sunday, December 11, 2022, news that has shocked many of his fellow artists and others in the local arts community, as well as family, friends and acquaintances.
“It is just such an extreme loss for everyone in this community and the people who knew him and were affected by him,” says Elizabeth Doud, the curator of performance at The Ringling, where Sims had been an artist in residence. Sims’ work often crossed disciplines, combining visual art, performance, photography, filmmaking and activism, and he was unafraid to confront topics like racism, police violence, imagery of the Confederate flag and the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Meeting John, I felt like I was with someone who was a risk taker, someone who was going to be able to carry an idea from wild brainstorming to complete final product,” Doud says. “I felt like I was with someone who had an absolute command over his own artistic language but wasn’t afraid to push into new areas.”
Sims was born in Detroit and attended Ohio’s Antioch College, where, after graduating, he created and organized the Cross Cultural Field Program and African-American Culture Week, which later became the long-running AACW Blues and Gospel Fest. He later taught at Ringling College of Art and Design, where his specialty was in math and art, and he presented related exhibitions and lectures around the United States and in Hungary, Slovenia, Israel and Argentina.
Sims’ long-running multimedia project Reclamation Proclamation focused on a series of installations that featured Confederate flag imagery. The work reflected on our country’s racial history and was frequently a lightning rod, drawing negative reactions from people who found it disrespectful and praise from those who found it relevant and astute. He was absolutely committed to it.
“He ran into conflict, because he was not quiet about his beliefs and very much stood behind them,” says Steven High, The Ringling’s executive director. “He did flag-burning ceremonies all across the country. He did events where they would lynch the Confederate flag. He was a controversial figure, as well as a very rigorous artist.”
Sims frequently gave presentations at the Bowery Poetry Club in New York City, collaborated with Amish quilters on SquareRoots: A Quilted Manifesto and had his work featured in publications like The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and Art in America, among others.
Sims gained national attention in 2015 after issuing a call for artists to burn or bury the Confederate Flag on July 4, in an effort to “set fire to or shovel dirt on a vestige of the old South,” days after nine Black churchgoers were murdered by a white gunman in South Carolina — who was later found to be waving the flag in previous photographs.
In a NBC News article, Sims described the destruction of the Confederate flag as a form of creative resistance.
“[The July 4 events] are intended to create a space of ceremonial reflection on the complex desire for the death and burial — and perhaps the burning — of the Confederate flag as a symbol of terror, treason, and white supremacy,” Sims said.
Sims was openly critical of present-day visibility of the Confederate flag.
“The flags, statues and monuments normalize language and behavior that celebrate the Confederacy, while defending positions of power both visual and psychological,” Sims said in a 2017 Q&A with the Herald-Tribune. “The main agenda and consequence have been the creation of a very harassing environment that promotes segregated histories, fake Civil War narratives and the suppression of historical accountability. To move forward, we must as a nation, have honest and naked conversation about the roots of American racism — slavery and white supremacy.”
Larry R. Thompson, the president of Ringling College, shared a statement with the Herald-Tribune.
“I was extremely saddened to learn of the untimely passing of John Sims. As a former faculty member at Ringling College of Art and Design from 1997-2005, John built out a unique mathematics curriculum specifically designed for artists and visual thinkers. It was a truly innovative course that is still offered at the College today,” Thompson said. “Because John was an internationally recognized artist, writer, lecturer, and activist, many have benefited from his bold voice and unapologetic efforts to create awareness and reform.”
Another friend, Keith Crowley, said he was in a state of bewilderment over Sims’ passing.
“John is the embodiment of what it means to be a multidisciplinary artist and thinker. He was constantly challenging me to be a more comprehensive artist and to place a higher value and sense of urgency on my own commitment to the creative process,” Crowley said.
“Rest in Power, John. You left a big wake.”
Those interested in experiencing Sims’ work can visit his online portfolio johnsimsproject.com.