Misha McGlown last saw her friend John Sims in New York City.
McGlown, a Detroit artist, was in town for work last year and decided to stop by the La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, where Sims had a residency.
The result was Sims’ exhibit “2020: (Di)Visions of America,” which featured multimedia performances of themes prevalent that year – the coronavirus pandemic, the death of George Floyd and the pushback on Confederate memorial and monument spaces.
“He was extremely prolific,” said McGlown, director of the Irwin House Gallery in the LaSalle Gardens neighborhood. “Just beyond the amount of work and the different types of work and different disciplines he worked seemingly simultaneously.”
Sims’ work came to a halt however when the Detroit native died Dec. 11 from natural causes in his Sarasota, Florida, home.
McGlown held a memorial in his honor earlier this month at the gallery on W. Grand Boulevard, but will host another event Feb.13 on what would’ve been Sims’ 55th birthday. Beginning at 6 p.m., the Irwin House event will be similar to a party Sims held every year called the “Square Root of Love,” where guests listen to love poems, engage in discussions and enjoy some wine, she said. The event will be hosted by community organizer and poet Brittini Ward, who was a poet laureate for one of the gallery’s past exhibits.
“Just like many of us from humble beginnings, he’s a product of our Detroit neighborhoods and Detroit Public Schools,” McGlown said. “He was able to take that upbringing and sense of self that people have who grew up in Detroit…and really take that out into the world and do incredible work.”
A mathematician with the eye of an artist
Sims was a math artist, writer and activist, blending the arts and sciences into installations, performance art, music and film.
He grew up on Sorrento Avenue near West Chicago on Detroit’s west side, McGlown said. Sims graduated from Renaissance High School in 1986, where he excelled in math and science. Sims moved to Ohio to attend Antioch College, graduating in 1990.
He then became a doctoral student at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, before relocating to Sarasota, where he served as the coordinator of mathematics at Ringling College of Art and Design, according to Sims’ obituary.
In 2005, Sims decided to pursue art full-time.
One of his most notable projects included the yearlong exhibition and film project “Rhythm of Structure: Mathematics, Art and Poetic Reflection.” Held at the Bowery Poetry Club in New York City, the exhibits featured spoken word, music and dance performances in response to the art.
Sims was also known for his “Recoloration Proclamation,” projects, where he explored the symbolism of the Confederate Flag. The 18 years long project included pieces like changing the colors of the flag to the red, black and green of the Black Liberation flags and creating the Burn and Bury movement, where Sims encouraged people to burn the Confederate flag and bury it on Memorial Day and July 4.
In his later years, Sims returned to Detroit to create artwork. After Aretha Franklin’s death in 2018, he teamed up with Irwin House to create the exhibit, “Aretha Supernatural: Tribute to a Queen,” McGlown said. Sims made a four-minute video poem for the exhibit called “Hurricane Aretha,” where he compared the singer to a natural phenomenon.
The following year, Sims stayed in Detroit for a month-long residency, doing a multimedia project about Sorrento Avenue and his former neighbors, McGlown said.
“A lot of people have ideas, like, ‘Oh, I want to do this,’ but it doesn’t happen,” she said. “But he would make it happen.”
Irwin House to pay tribute to Sims for Black History Month
Along with the “Square Root of Love” event, a mural honoring Sims’ work on the Confederate flag was recently painted by Detroit artist Quadre Curry. Displayed in the front room of the gallery, the piece shows the flag up in flames. McGlown said the mural will be available to view throughout February for Black History Month.
She said the idea of a mural came to her late in the planning process of Sims’ memorial, which left Curry only two days to create it.
The 25-year-old said he would come over to the gallery after he was done at his full-time job and paint for three or four hours.
“Misha was super helpful,” Curry said. “She made sure I had everything I needed – paint brushes, tarp for the floor, chalk to plan out everything.
“And I’m a fast painter,” added Curry, laughing.
Curry did not not know much about Sims before he started the project, but quickly began researching him online. While their art mediums are different, Curry said he believes that he and Sims center Black voices in their work and come from similar backgrounds.
Curry was raised in Detroit, but went to college in Georgia, where seeing the Confederate flag was a common occurrence, he said.
“This feels kind of full circle because art can sometimes seem very ornamental and separated from the things happening in the real world,” Curry said. “So, I use art as a way to reassert myself into those types of conversations. And I can tell that was what John Sims was doing with his career. I wanna pick up that torch in a way and use my art to advance those conversations…and have a reality where we take symbols that have a lot of power and take that power away.”
Curry said he believes Sims’ legacy in Detroit is having the ability to be resilient and trying to show a brighter future for America.
“In order to see the type of America that John believed in, we have to maintain that resilience, and who cares how long it’s been, we’re still gonna send out the message that we want to move on from that (the flag) until we are actually living in that reality,” he said.