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"Keeping Art Alive"
The Story of Phyllis Sims

By Augustus Wilson

African Americans in the Philadelphia area are fortunate to have a near complete photographic history of their community from 1930 to date. First there were the photographs of John W. Mosley for the first period 1930 to 1969. These images were summarized in Professor James Blockson’s book, “The Journey of John W. Mosley,” published under the auspices of Temple University. Mosley’s work appears to be more about his subjects as personalities and people than a chronicle of events. The people assume an importance that stands out above historical events. Jack Franklin’s photography covered the period 1962 to approximately 1985. In Mr. Franklin’s photographs there is no doubt that historical events are the motivating force. The people are still there, but the events stand out. It is as if Mr. Franklin is saying, here are the people who occupied the stage at the time of these important events, but what is really important is the event. Such is Franklin’s message whether the scene is of the demonstrations at the Girard College Wall or the annual Debutante’s Ball at Heritage House. Franklin’s people do not dominate; the occasion dominates. There are exceptions. The photograph entitled “NAACP Action Branch Police Brutality Victims, 1976” included in volume 2, Issue 3 of Philadelphia Black Network is an example. The viewer immediately perceives and understands the situation and suffering of the young men. No occasion is required; the young men and their plight convey all that Franklin may have wanted to convey.

Phyllis Sims
Phyllis Sims

A young artist still making her record completes the trio of photographers. It starts after the period of Jack Franklin. Fortunately, this young female is familiar with Jack Franklin’s work and indeed Mr. Franklin himself. Many of her photographs are taken at events but it is clear that the personalities pictured rise above the occasion. Most of her people could be pictured against a solid background and they would convey a powerful message. She has managed to borrow the best from both Mosley’s and Franklin’s approaches and to come forward with a meaningful style.

Phyllis Sims is a self-taught artist, journalist, philosopher, photographer, and arts advocate who has chronicled business, political and entertainment celebrities most of her life.

She is a clever public relations strategist, lecturer, historian and artist.

Ms. Sims attended grade school at Smith School in South Philadelphia, Sayre Junior High School in West Philadelphia; Palmer Memorial Institute in Sedalia, N. C., West Philadelphia High School, Rutgers University in Camden, New Jersey and various specialty schools, i.e. Charles Morris Price School of Advertising, Philadelphia School of Office Training and private tutorships.

Phyllis Sims overcame and survived many physical and emotional challenges and family losses when she underwent two cancer surgeries and lost both parents.

Phyllis Sims was born in Philadelphia and grew up in South Philadelphia. She got her basic education by being a constant companion and Secretary to her Mother, Juanita Sims. Her 13th birthday gift was a typewriter. Her mother set a good example of “Negro Womanhood.”

Phyllis Sims is the only child of the only child of a 13th child. She is an artist/photographer/writer who was raised in a glamorous show business environment. She clicked her first photo of jazz vocal icons Carmen McRae and Sarah Vaughn on the beach in Atlantic City at the age of 10. She has not stopped since that early date. She learned the art of survival from her Mother and Grandmother as a single black mother here in America. Her mother, Juanita Sims, started introducing her to political scenes at an early age and always reminded her of the democratic process.

Ms. Sims’ images of personalities, artistic expressions in the form of collages and landscapes were inspired by personalities and places she encountered during her world travels. Her early photo education was toured in part by industry’s professional role models such as Sonny Driver, Publisher & Editor of SCOOP USA (who gave her a job in his center city publishing house when she was 15 and everything was manual) and Jack Franklin who was always there to answer a question and give a friendly lesson or critique. Her exhibits of art and photography have been shown at Rutgers University, Camden. Woodstock collage was displayed at ArtExpo NYC. She has donated a portrait of America’s first canonized saint, the late John Newman to the late Cardinal John Krol and is now on display at the St. Charles Seminary. Her collages are in the private collections.

She has photographed the “Valley of Fire” in Nevada,” Mt. Fuji” in Japan and the “Mayan Pyramids” Mexico. Ms Sims has always been an advocate for humanity. In the past, an advocate for African Americans in the broadcast industry and currently an arts advocate. Her motto is “Keep Arts Alive” by reinstating art in the curriculum of our nation’s public schools.

What is practically unknown is that Ms. Sims usually takes the photos which accompany the articles.

Overall, as a photographer, Ms. Sims’ work is a combination of Mosley and Franklin. Ms. Sims photographs are often about events such as was the case with Franklin. But even if it is of people attending an event, it is the personalities that dominate. So, in this regard, she is more in the style of a Mosley.

Sims currently serves as Curator of the Marian Anderson Residence Museum, the historically designated home of the late great contralto, Marian Anderson. www.MarianAnderson.org

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