“A Family’s Journey Home,” an exhibit of paintings and corresponding narratives by Evanston resident Jevoid Simmons, will be on display at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center Feb. 7-March 6 as part of the City of Evanston’s Black History Month celebration. While his collection is “afrocentric,” Mr. Simmons says, it is also “family based” and should appeal to a broad audience.
The collection began as a way to document the Simmons family history for the younger generation. But as the project came together, Mr. Simmons saw that it touched on common threads across racial lines. The project “is a slice of someone’s life,” said Mr. Simmons. What happened to his family “happened to a lot of people,” he said. “There is understanding through sharing.” His exhibit expresses the challenges that families experience, he said.
Mr. Simmons begins his story by telling how, in 1952, his father left Alabama to escape a lynching. His father had an altercation with his boss, the owner of a saw mill. “An old white man” came to warn his father, Mr. Simmons said, that the Night Riders were coming to get him. He quickly sold a cow that did not belong to him to buy a plane ticket to go to Iowa to live with family members. He eventually “made it right” with the owners of the cow, said the artist, and saved money to bring the rest of his family up north.
“I painted what I felt,” said Mr. Simmons, who translated the stories he heard from his father into art. The pictures he created of his family home and family stories turned out to be quite accurate, as confirmed by older family members.
“A Family’s Journey Home” includes 17 acrylic paintings done in a “naïve style” much like that of Grandma Moses, said Mr. Simmons. “The Warning”, “The Chase” and “The Sale” are a few of the titles. Some of the paintings include “ghosts” – people who would not have actually been alive in the period of the painting but who represent part of the family story.
Aside from the paintings, Mr. Simmons has also created a collection of carved wood figures, some of which are real people from his family and some composites representing people he has only heard about. They are the people of Sugar Creek, Ala., said Mr. Simmons, a made-up place he created to help tell his stories. One figure he calls “Old Lady Katie” represents a woman who woke up at her own funeral. She asked for a glass of water and was ignored. She eventually sat up in the casket.
Mr. Simmons has also compiled a book of his art and the corresponding stories. He hopes to have it published to help share his family’s experiences.
“It’s in our DNA to tell stories; that’s how we learn,” said Mr. Simmons. “If people spent more time sharing, we could break down a lot of barriers. Connections we make build bridges.”