Famed folk artist dies

Published 4:37 pm Tuesday, October 28, 2014

She was a true visual historian, and on Thursday, Brewton will give its final farewells to acclaimed folk artist Bernice Sims, who died on Oct. 23.
Sims came from humble beginnings. The oldest of eight children born in Butler County, she was a Christmas gift to her parents and a gift to the art world. She experienced the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s firsthand, having been pulled away from the polls because of the color of her skin and chased by a truck filled with Ku Klux Klansmen. She stood on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday.
Over the years and little did she know, but her rich life experiences were being stored and would soon be shared with the world through paint.
She was 52 when she saw the posting for a free community art class at Jeff Davis Community College. It was there she met friend Tricia (Hart) McDonald and art instructor Larry Manning. It was through that class and a class field trip to the Montgomery Museum of Art that changed her life forever.
Some may have heard the story of how Sims traveled to meet another folk artist, Mose Tolliver, after that field trip.
Family members said that when Sims saw his work and the acclaim he received from it, she decided to pursue her dream of art.
“I remember being in some classes when Larry Manning was teaching at the college, and I remember Larry saying to Bernice that he was not going to ruin her style by educating her about too much,” McDonald recalled. “He saw in her the potential to be a primitive artist, and he was right.”
Sims specialized in memory painting, rendering scenes from her youth. Colorful scenes of farm life, church activities, church and community gatherings, daily and family life and the civil rights struggles in which she participated. She often portrayed playgrounds and scenes of children in her work.
“She had a desire to paint something about the history of how it was when she was younger,” McDonald said. “She wanted the young people to know what life was like. Scenes like people washing clothes in big iron pots, syrup making because those were things you didn’t see anymore.
“She was a truly wonderful human being,” she said. “She will be missed.”
Over the years, the acclaim Sims dreamed about came to be. In 1993, she had her first national exposure when the exhibit “Passionate Visions of the American South: Self-Taught Artists from 1940 to the Present” opened at the New Orleans Museum of Art and traveled nationwide. In 1994, she was the 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, her work was included in an exhibition honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at Brooks Museum of Art in Memphis. It was in 2005, that Sims received perhaps her biggest honor – her work on a postage stamp.
The “To Form a More Perfect Union” commemorative stamps went on national tour from September through December of that year.
Her paintings are displayed nationwide – in homes, galleries, the Alabama State capitol and in Washington D.C.
Most recently, she helped to pen a book about her life, “The Struggle, My Life, My Legacy.”
However, it seems her biggest legacy is the many contributions she made through her life and her art.
Sims will be laid to rest Thursday at 2 p.m. at Piney Grove Cemetery in Brewton. To read her complete obituary, see Page 11A.