Bernice Johnson Sims was born on Christmas Day of 1926 in Hickory Hill, near Georgiana, Alabama. She was the first child of Robert and Essie Bell Presley Johnson, soon to be followed by seven younger siblings. Sims married at 16 and had six children. When her husband deserted the family, Sims worked several jobs to support her family on her own.
While we remember Bernice for her art, the memories depicted in many of her paintings were made during her years as an activist. In the 1960s, Sims worked to coordinate the activities of the NAACP in secret because the organization was outlawed by the state of Alabama during that era of the Civil Rights Movement. She participated in voting rights marches and recalled being turned away from the polls herself. She was one of the first to enroll her children in the formerly all-white public schools in her community. Once, she was chased by a pickup truck filled with Ku Klux Klansmen. She told of guarding her home with a rifle while a cross burned in her yard. She participated in the Selma-Montgomery March and witnessed the events of “Bloody Sunday” first-hand—an event she would later depict in many of her paintings.
At age 52, after raising her family and retiring from her job in nursing, Bernice took an art history class at Jefferson Davis Community College that renewed her interest in art. The instructor, Larry Manning, led her to find interest in Mose Tolliver, who lived and worked nearby. After visiting Tolliver in Montgomery, she decided to pursue her postponed dream.
Bernice specialized in memory painting, recreating colorful scenes of farm life, church activities, daily family life, and civil rights struggles. She said, “I’m trying to tell a story in my work. I also try to have a little history for these youngsters coming along. You don’t find it in a schoolbook or classroom. I want them to know things aren’t like they are today. I want them to learn about the struggle my people had to go through.”
In 1993, Sims’s work was included in a nationally-traveled exhibition of Self-Taught Artists at the New Orleans Museum of Art. In 1994, she was inducted into the Black History Hall of Fame. Her work has been included in the Brooks Museum of Art, the National Center for the Study of Civil Rights and African-American Culture at Alabama State University, the Alabama State Capitol, and in Washington D.C.
In 2005, the United States Postal Service honored Bernice Sims by issuing a postage stamp featuring her painting of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. The stamp is one of ten in the series entitled “To Form A More Perfect Union” chosen to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act.
In 2014 Sims released a book about her life called The Struggle: My Life & Legacy and attended a book signing for it. She passed three weeks later on October 23, 2014, but her work continues to inspire and educate the 'youngsters' today.
Inspired by recent programming at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, beginning June 5th Kentuck Art Center is dedicating ten days of online content to the Black artists in our Permanent Collection. While Kentuck Art Center cannot address the full complexity of systemic racism on our own, we can gain perspective and a sense of purpose by listening to the voices of artists we are proud to have in our collection.
Kentuck's Permanent Collection holds artworks of significance to Kentuck's history, as well as the American Folk Art movement. The objects collected by Kentuck physically document the narrative of American Folk Art, as well as Kentuck's Festival, Studio, and Exhibiting artists. The objects in Kentuck's Permanent Collection form a history that is the basis for research, exhibition, interpretation, and community engagement.
Story compiled from various sources including Kentuck's Archives, Roots Up Gallery and Marcia Weber Art Objects