On His 55th Birthday, the Sarasota Community Remembered Artist John Sims
The late Sarasota-based artist, activist and educator John Sims was remembered through songs, videos and personal tributes at a memorial held Monday, Feb. 13, at the Historic Asolo Theater—the date that would have been his birthday, and one which he often marked around Valentine’s Day with events centered on the “square root of love.”
The square root reference comes direct from Sims’ lifelong practice of creating art “reflective of the universal nature of mathematical truth,” as was written in the obituary printed in the memorial’s program. Sims died suddenly in December 2022 at the age of 54 near his longtime Gillespie Park studio and home.
Sims, a graduate of Antioch College in Ohio, created that school’s Cross-Cultural Field Program and African-American Culture Week. A doctoral student in Connecticut before relocating to Sarasota, Sims served as the coordinator of mathematics at Ringling College of Art and Design before moving on to pursue his art full-time in 2005. He was also an artist-in-residence at The Ringling and the Hermitage Artist Retreat.
Sims’ work was conceptual and sometimes controversial, but always thought-provoking. Guests attending the Monday memorial first heard the strains of the Old South tune “Dixie,” which Sims had re-examined in a variety of ways as part of his Afro Dixie recording project. They also saw images of his ongoing artworks related to the Confederate flag—his Recoloration Proclamation, which changed the colors of the flag to the red, green and black of the Black Liberation flag; his hanging of the rebel flag using a noose; and more.
Sims’ art career also involved working with Amish quilters, presenting spoken word events and more at New York City’s Bowery Poetry Club, and, true to his math roots, celebrating “Pi Day.”
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Family, friends and colleague spoke of Sims’ contributions to their lives and the art world at the memorial, including Sarasota Mayor Kyle Battie, a Sims friend who presented a proclamation honoring Sims and also posthumously presented him with the key to the city. Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe founder Nate Jacobs sang “This Little Light of Mine,” and singers Twinkle and Maicy Powell likewise paid tribute through music. Fellow artist Gale Fulton Ross, Bowery Poetry Club founder Bob Holman, journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault and performance artist Billy Talen (“Reverend Billy”) were also among the speakers.
But perhaps the most touching moments of the celebration came from Sims’ sister, Angela Sims-Shackleford, and brother, Aaron Sims. Sims-Shackleford spoke of how her brother saved her from failing algebra in college by painstakingly helping her with every problem on a practice test. And Aaron Sims recalled a young John’s determination to build a clubhouse in the yard of their Detroit home, describing how he scrounged around the neighborhood for pieces to complete it.
Of his brother, Aaron also said that John possessed three things crucial to his life and work: “a vision, a critical eye and audacity”—a perspective that was echoed by other speakers during the evening.