John Sims: Conceptual artist challenges conventional conversations about history, racism and love

By J. A. Jones, Staff Writer

SARASOTA — Sarasota-based artist John Sims is a conceptual “math artist” – as well as a musician, curator, digital artist and the controversial creator of the annual Confederate flag “Burn and Bury” events around the country.

And he’s reaching a milestone year.

“This is a big birthday year for me…I need some advice, I got a month to go!” he laughed affably.

A digital-age renaissance man, Sims is an imposing figure, standing well over six feet, with a crown of untethered locks, nerdy glasses and a congenial personality. He seems to embody the walking contradictions that challenge easy assumptions about black, male artists and intellectuals in the 21st century.

John Sims, featured“I’m from Detroit,” Sims explained “I went to a college prep school, but I also took classes at the [vocational] school, so I was on both sides, college prep and tech side…and was also very involved in labor movement politics and left-wing politics. So, I think those things informed me.”

The dichotomy existing in Sims’ early influences fuel his creative projects today.  Part of his inspiration is connecting what seem to be opposites, the mixing of oppositional forces.

“The idea of taking the Confederate flag and making it black, red and green, taking those things, these oppositional symbols relative to each other and then creating this mixing element,” he averred. “You think they’re opposite and shouldn’t connect…and boom. So, I think that tends to be part of what inspires me.”

Sims has made waves in both the art world and the political sphere through his 16-year-long creative exploration/opposition to the Confederate flag – beginning with his “Recoloration Proclamation” in 2001.

The project began to take shape after Sims moved to Sarasota in 1997 when as a doctoral student in mathematics at Wesleyan University he landed a position at Ringling College developing visual mathematics curricula for its design students.

As a transplanted northerner, the presence of the flag in the South was an affront that goaded him to action.

“Why must my visual field be subject to images of a lost war? Why must I endure the discomfort I feel when I see a pickup truck with the flag? Or even worse, the numbed out black Southerners who have learned to tune it all out,” he wrote on his website.

Today, Sims draws the analogy of complacency around the Confederate flag to domestic abuse and he’s passionate about the danger it represents.

 “As an outsider, coming down here I was much more sensitive to the Confederate flag and I see it as visual abuse. You can get used to any kind of abuse and you can normalize it after a while.”

For Sims, it was like walking into a place and seeing abusive behavior but everyone else was just a part of it.

“I come in and I’m like, ‘Why are you talking to that person like that?’ And they’re like, ‘What do you mean, you get out of here. This is none of your business; this is family business!’ But then, when somebody gets hurt or killed… then everyone is like, whoa, wait a minute,” he said. “In South Carolina it took this white kid, Dylan Roof, to go in and kill nine black folks in church before the Confederate flag became a national discussion.”

Sims has traveled the country exhibiting his over 20 “recolorations” and “reconstructed” flags. It’s been a long journey, complete with death threats, protests and media attention. While Sims continues to expand on the work, he sees the bulk of his flag project as accomplished.

“I would say that I completed a particular chapter in this ongoing project that will connect to other projects in other collaborations, other protest movements around the country,” he shared.

Last October, he and a group of artists, students and educators enacted the performance piece “Confederate Flag: A Public Hanging” at Ohio University, featuring the hanging a Confederate flag from a 13-foot gallows. This later became the exhibit entitled “The Proper Way to Hang a Confederate Flag,” which showed at Ohio’s Kennedy Museum.

Sims also recorded a CD called “The AfroDixie Remixes” that brings musicians and poets together to create new versions of Old South musical standards and create conversation around themes of race and history.

A recent AfroDixie Listening Party in Martha’s Vineyard included feedback by journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault and Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton.

“I go around the country and do these listening parties that have poets and activists and artists respond to those listening sessions, and that will continue.”

Sims’ flag protest has created annual “Burn and Bury” events, which began in 2015 when he arranged 13 flag funerals in 13 states with contributions from poets in each location.

“The idea is that these annual events will continue on their own. But in terms of the original mission of the flag work, I think the major part of that chapter has been completed; now I’m moving in other areas.”

The other areas include an upcoming Valentine’s Day event that brings Sims to New York City for “The SquareRoot of Love” project.

“I came up with the idea of The SquareRoot of Love as part of my “Rhythm of Structure” show at the Bowery Poetry Club in 2009. It was a year-long curatorial project that paired up nine mathematical art shows with nine groups of poets; each group responded to a different exhibition.”

His part used the language of algebra and the idea of the square root of love: what are the factors of love? What times what equals love? It became a kind of metaphysical, metaphorical exploration into the different components of what love might mean.

Nearly a decade later, Sims has revisited the event. Starting in the South of France and working with a winery in Bordeaux country, he’s produced his own wine labeled with his signature SquareRoot of Love emblem on the front and his poem of the same name on the back.

This month, Sims returns to New York on Feb. 12 and then Paris on the 14th with a lineup of poets and performances for a new round of his Valentine’s Day Project.

When asked about bringing his work to St. Pete, Sims enthusiastically begins to list possibilities, indicating he might still have more explorations to do in the region around his flag project after all.

“I’ve done stuff in Tampa; I’d love to do something in St. Pete. I was talking to Carla Bristol of Gallerie 909 about doing an AfroDixie Remix thing there. And I was going to do something around that big gigantic flag on I-4; I was talking about getting space across from the highway to raise a red, black and green flag, but something happened with the grant, they kind of pulled back. I’ve definitely been thinking about that, it’s crazy that that flag is flying so high.”

For more information on John Sims Projects, visit www.johnsimsprojects.com.

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