In the scene before me, a group of colorfully dressed civilians clash with a line of police officers who are using dogs and water hoses to tame the crowd. The water from the hoses arcs over the entire group, adding a surreal component. Could this have happened? Anyone who was born and raised in the South (or just about any other place) during the 1960s should recognize this scene from the epic struggle for civil rights. In Birmingham, Ala., in 1963, Police Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor used fire hoses and dogs to quell a non-violent protest being staged by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Photographs depicting these events were in Life Magazine and on television and spotlighted the evils of segregation.
On this day in 2000, I was not viewing one of those notorious photographs, I was looking at a wonderful painting, The Birmingham Water Hose, created by an artist I had not yet heard of, Bernice Sims. In the years following my introduction to Sims’s work, I learned that this iconic image is but one of the memories that the artist has captured in her brightly colored oil or acrylic paintings.
Born in 1926 on Christmas Day in the Hickory Hill community near Georgiana, Ala., Sims lived the lifestyle typical of this rural area of southern Alabama. Despite the hard work required to sustain daily living, Sims was exposed to art early in her life. Growing up, she lived near two spinster sisters, one of whom was a painter. Sims enjoyed many afternoons watching her paint, and this piqued her interest in also becoming a painter.
Real life intervened, however. She ended up married at 16 years of age, deserted by her husband and doing office work to support her six children, and thus not having the opportunity to put paint brush to canvas. She was active in the civil rights movement in the 1960s, coordinating the activities of the NAACP in Brewton, Ala., in secret because the organization at the time was outlawed by the state. She participated in voter registration drives and witnessed the violence and heartbreak as well as the triumph that those turbulent times engendered.
She took part in the famous Selma-Montgomery March and witnessed the “Bloody Sunday” events on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965, an experience she later depicted in dozens of paintings. Like many other blacks, Sims was not able to vote due to long, complicated registrations forms and the poll tax.
Once, during the civil rights struggle, she was chased by a pickup truck filled with hooded Ku Klux Klansmen. Her children were among the first to integrate Brewton’s public schools. At the same time, she remained active in her community and church. Her rich life experiences were being stored, just waiting for a suitable means of expression.
At age 52, when her last child had left the nest and after knee-cap replacement surgery limited her mobility, Sims retired from her office job. She earned her GED and by 1984, began taking courses at a community college in Brewton. That year, on an art history-class field trip to the Montgomery Museum of Art, she heard about Mose Tolliver, who lived and worked nearby.
She subsequently visited Tolliver at his home in Montgomery, saw his work and the acclaim he received from it, and decided to pursue her postponed artistic dream that began in those childhood afternoons with the spinster sisters.
She drew subject material from her memories – harsh times surrounding the civil rights movement, more bucolic times living and growing up in rural Alabama and scenes of religious practices. Hog killing, syrup-making, strawberry picking and baptisms are also common themes, juxtaposed with paintings titled The Birmingham Water Hose and Crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. Her paintings are rendered in a flat, expressionistic style using bright colors – some on canvas and some on found objects.
I finally met Bernice Sims at the Kentuck Festival of the Arts in Tuscaloosa, Ala., several years ago. She was sitting in her booth surrounded by empty walls; not a single painting remained. All were sold soon after the festival opened to the public. She mentioned to me that her health was not as good as she wanted it to be, but she was happy to still be painting, as it gave her the ability to share her life memories with those who will come after her.
In 1993, Sims gained her first national exposure when her work was included in the exhibition, Passionate Visions of the American South: Self-Taught Artists from 1940 to the Present, that opened at the New Orleans Museum of Art and traveled nationwide, accompanied by a catalogue published by the University Press of Mississippi.
In 1994, Sims was featured in the book, Revelations: Alabama’s Visionary Folk Artists, by Kathy Kemp. She was an artist-in-residence at the New Orleans Museum of Art, joining Jimmy Lee Sudduth and Tolliver in this honor. That same year, she was inducted into the Black History Hall of Fame in Lake Charles, La., for her contributions to black culture.
In 2003, one of Sims’ paintings was included in an exhibition honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, at the Brooks Museum of Art in Memphis.
In August 2005, the United States Postal Service released a series of ten commemorative stamps titled “To Form a More Perfect Union.” Sims’ image, The Crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma,, was selected to be one of the stamps in this series.
In May-June 2008, the National Center for the Study of Civil Rights and African-American Culture at Alabama State University in Montgomery hosted an exhibition of approximately 70 of her paintings. The exhibition, A Brush with the Past: Memory Paintings of Bernice Sims, was organized by Montgomery attorney and Folk Art Society member Micki Beth Stiller. A small catalogue accompanied the exhibition.
Now 82, Bernice Sims is still actively painting, despite several recent health setbacks. When able, she continues to work at the polls on election day in Brewton. From humble beginnings, she has made significant contributions through her life and her art.