Updated: Jul 21, 2020
Don't miss Up from Down Home, Evanston artist Jevoid Simmons's 17- painting exhibit (with narratives) that shares the story of his family’s migration from Alabama to Iowa in the early 1950’s.
WHEN: The exhibit is up now through October 18 at the Civic Center, 2100 Ridge, in the fourth floor Parasol Room. Gallery hours are 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.
"I encourage all parents and family elders to share their family stories and not let them slip lost into time," Jevoid Simmons told me recently.
That's what he's done in this beautiful and moving collection of folk-art paintings and primitive-style carvings of friends and family members that tell the story of his family's departure from Alabama after they were threatened with violence by the Ku Klux Klan.
Simmons, who has lived in Evanston for the past 40 years, is one of seven brothers and nine sisters. He is the fourth boy, and last of his parents' children, to be born in Alabama.
In Alabama, Simmons' father worked at a local sawmill as laborer. His mother was a homemaker.
"Sometimes, to help make ends meet, pop, mom and my two oldest brothers picked cotton for large land owners," says Simmons.
In 1952, Simmons' father was involved in an altercation with a mill shop boss.
"He was accused of having botched a job. His boss threatened to bust him in the head with a pipe. My father chased him out of the building," Simmons says. "This was the incident that precipitated our having to leave. He was warned by a white neighbor that the Klan was coming for him."
Simmons' father left Alabama first after setting his wife and children up with other family members in the back country, away from their home. He settled in Iowa, where an aunt and uncle had migrated a few years earlier, and then sent for the rest of the family.
"Dad's initial work in Iowa was at a Chicken Delight restaurant," says Simmons. "Interestingly, this restaurant had segregated facilities. He and other Black folk could not enter through the front door or eat next to white folk. So things weren't perfect, but there was no Klan. As you might guess, we experienced discrimination in the north too, but less of the in your face violence."
Simmons' parents died young, his father in 1973 at age 51, and his mom in 1976 at age 52.
"There's a 25-year span between the first- and last-born child in our family," Simmons says. "The older kids, me included, were told why our family left the south. But the others weren't aware of it."
So Simmons started carving family figures and writing about the family history for his younger siblings and then started writing narratives about the paintings.
"I wanted to document this critical aspect of our family history," Simmons explains.
"It was an effort to connect past, present and future generations of the family.
"Pop often shared with his older boys, "If you have no past worth mentioning, it’s possible to not have a sense of a present humanity worth defending."
Simmons, who is married to Dickelle Fonda and whose son Seth Simmons also lives in Evanston, recently retired after a 35-year career in human resources management. He spent the last 17 years at he Art Institute of Chicago, where he was the director of employee relations and training for the School and Museum.
Central to his work was his grounding in conflict resolution, managerial effectiveness, and diversity management. He's also a life coach who works with adolescents and adults to identify and achieve their life goals, and volunteers around Evanston.
Art has been Simmons' life-long love. His next expanded art project is focused on police violence nationwide that inordinately impacts black and brown folks.
View Simmons’ website here.