(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 a 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 specter of racial violence within the early Fifties.
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 certainly 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 go away the South.
Simmons’ exhibit at the middle also includes 21 wood carvings.
“All the people within the carving are relations, except 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 since the [Ku Klux] Klan was going to kill him. He was a friend, and he desired to ensure that we got away. And we did.”
Simmons’ affinity for creating art began when he was in grade school. He said making art was a way to flee the challenges he faced living with dyslexia. On one occasion, he said, his second-grade teacher slapped him in front of the category for hiding a failed math test on the way in which home from school.
Simmons said that he worked through these challenges and graduated with honors in highschool and college.
“Within the early years, and now, art has fed my soul,” Simmons said.
The artwork of Jevoid Simmons is on display on the North Shore Senior Center.
Simmons said his paintings are a approach to help document his family’s history, for the reason that gap between the youngest and the oldest is a complete 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 the moment 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 around Simmons and told him, “I’m going to take the ladies. You could exit 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 day by day by people on the road. Inside a 12 months he was promoted to the corporate’s headquarters in Chicago.
For many 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 worker relations, then with Northwestern Memorial Hospital as director of workforce diversity, and eventually on the Art Institute of Chicago, where he worked as director of worker relations and training until retiring in 2018.
“I used to be working hard, earning a living, and figured in some unspecified time in the future people would determine that I used to be 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 within the closet for the subsequent few years, because, Simmons said modestly, “I wasn’t a showing artist or anything like that.”
Simmons said it was Evanston antique and folk art store owner Harvey Pranian who encouraged him to bring his art to the general public.
“I really like antiques and folk arts, and I might visit Harvey’s shop and we form of got to know one another,” Simmons said.
“Years later, he [learned] that I had these paintings and he and a friend wanted to have a 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 needs to be seen!’”
This led to Simmons’ first show, in 2015, on the Noyes Cultural Arts Center, where he displayed the 17 family paintings and various family and friends woodcarvings – all curated by Pranian.
“You already know, I’d never seen my artwork in that way,” Simmons said. “And in order that was form of the beginning. It was amazing for me because I never considered myself an artist, only a individual 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 usually not on the market at any price.
Simmons said he’s had offers – one particularly from a person who desired to purchase the carving of family and friends gathered across the old church down home.
“I told him it wasn’t on the market, and the guy kept pestering me about it,” Simmons recalled. “So, I said, ‘$250,000, because I believe my family would appreciate that.’ The guy laughed and said, ‘OK, so it’s not on the market then, right.’”
Along with 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 present Black and Brown youth in grades 3-8 opportunities to find themselves and the world around them. The camp includes team-building exercises; sports, arts, reading, financial literacy and STEM activities; and community service projects.
“This system exposes kids to the chances, and provides skills and traits to help 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 point out who they are surely and where they wish to be.
“I need them to dream their future.”
Simmons says that because his artworks depict his family history, they are usually not on the market.
“It’s a great program, and it’s something I need to be involved in because everybody along the way in which needs help somewhere,” Simmons said. “Sometimes it’s just a bit something that may be needed to be on the correct path.”
The general public is invited to satisfy Jevoid Simmons and consider his artwork at a reception from 4 to six p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 7, on the NSSC Art Gallery, 161 Northfield Road in Northfield. To RSVP, contact Debra Mell at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (847) 784-6037.
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