“…This jewelry is like music to me.”

Remembering sculptor John Simpson’s genius through wood, words

John “Yah Yah” Simpson

By Bobbi Booker
Most folks look at a piece of wood and simply see the remnants of a tree. As a sculptor, John Simpson would look at the same piece of wood — a displaced branch or discarded tree trunk — and see a canvas.
Simpson’s death at age 71 on Dec. 3, lays to rest an artistic visionary whose highly evolved senses released the life forces inherent in wood and crafted into life-sized images of human figures that continue to resonate with art collectors, fans and friends alike.
Simpson, known affectionately as “Yah Yah” to many, was a unique and divinely inspired sculptor. He first started his craft as a boy in Norfolk, Va. fashioning play soldiers for himself from discarded wooden clothespins.
He was never formally trained, yet without being well versed in African art, he moved on to creating breathtaking works out of chair legs and baseball bats. When people first began comparing his sculptures to African works, he remained unaware of the connection. Others however, felt the sprit of Africa was clearly present in his artwork and jewelry.
“I feel so connected to Yah Yah’s jewelry,” neo-soul singer Erykah Badu recalled. “I remember when I first saw it, I was automatically taken back to the Congo, or whatever part of Africa represented in these atoms that are caught in this stuff. I could smell Africa with this jewelry.”
Badu, whose distinctive sense of style was enhanced by Simpson’s breathtaking jewelry, took time out from her studio sessions to poignantly describe her feelings after hearing the news.
“When I heard he died, I was wearing a ring that he made me out of turquoise rock and a spoon. This jewelry is like music to me. It carries millions of billions of atoms of those rocks and that metal in them. It’s impossible not to feel the expressions of my ancestors through that because Yah Yah’s hands did it.”
Simpson staged his first one-man show at age 18 with his 1959 Philadelphia exhibit debut. His work spanned over the course of six decades and was featured at the Brooklyn Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and is represented in the collections of such notables as George Dupont, Walter Edmunds and Charles Searles. Simpson taught art for three years at the Christina Arts Center in Wilmington, Del. and for one year in the Philadelphia Model Cities Program at the Ile Ife Black humanitarian Center.
Most recently, Simpson showcased his mixed media collection of wood sculpture and handcrafted silver artesian jewelry at the Ellen Powell Tiberino Memorial Museum.
“John was independent and one of the most productive people I’ve known,” said Richard Watson, curator of the African American Museum of Philadelphia. “He transcended description because his work was motivated by the love of the culture and people.”
Simpson married twice and was the father of five children: Karen Simpson, 50; John Ridley Seal Simpson, Jr., 47; Yvette Penny Simpson, 41; Oladele Simpson, 40 and Nile Simpson, 25. His oldest child remembered her father as an open-minded sprit who was intrigued with learning and sharing his experience from his global travels.
Simpson said her father traveled to South Africa twice, initially meeting with Winnie Mandela and gaining an audience with President Nelson Mandela on his subsequent visit.
“Every time he went somewhere, it was like he soaked up the culture, the people and the everything,” noted Karen. “He had that amazing ability to do that and then bring it back and put it into his artwork. It was unbelievable.”
Simpson’s halcyon years could be described as the period between the 1960’s and throughout the ’70s when maintained a studio at 34th Street and Spring Garden. The space served as a regional artist colony. Some of the guests that stopped by were legendary, yet Simpson, a quietly humble man, never bragged. It was just another natural occurrence in the life of a naturally gifted artist.
“Nina Simone, Sarah Vaughn, George Howard, Grover Washington and Stevie Wonder used to come to his studio when he was in West Philly,” evoked his daughter. “He was cool with them but it wasn’t like he was tripping about it. He would vibe with them and give them what he had to offer and would take in what they had.”
“He did a lot of work with entertainers,” concurred Watson. “He entertained the likes of people like the Funkadelic and Stevie Wonder and he made all kinds of things for people. Philadelphia International and the whole family of musicians frequented John’s studio. Erykah Badu was one of his latest clients and he was making jewelry for her. He did not go unnoticed and unappreciated whatsoever.”
Simpson was also a skilled conga player (he occasionally made and sold congas, as well) who frequently sat in on the jam sessions that would break out at his studio. “That place that he had at 34th and Spring Garden was really wonderful,” recalled friend and fellow artist, Falahuddain Deni.
“All the female dancers that used to be with Alvin Ailey would come down from New York and spend the night over there. He had drums set up in there along with a family of conga drums and an upright metal bass. Plus, he was such a groovy brother, even all the brothers loved him. He was the type of person who was natural with his leadership ability.”
Simpson’s art was the conduit that linked Africa to America and ultimately bridged the timeline between jazz and hip-hop. “Yah Yah” has been creatively described as a sorcerer of wood for his ability to take true nature forms such as a tree or piece of wood and breath a life-like image into it.
A piece of wood Simpson crafted into the image of Badu is prominently displayed in the vocalist’s Brooklyn apartment. “It’s like carving away at a piece of clay only to reveal what’s already there,” explained Badu. “Whatever piece he made, it was already there. He’s just filling the space up with the physical manifestation of it.”
A memorial honoring the life and work of John “Yah Yah” Simpson is scheduled for Sunday, January 6, from 1-4 p.m. at the African American Museum of Philadelphia, 701 Arch St.

=Originally published in The Philadelphia Tribune December 21, 2007=


“…In my head, I’m thinking about music.”




Photographer pushes the boundaries
Man of many talents dazzles with ‘innovative’ collection

John Dowell

photo by Michele Hunter


By Bobbi Booker,

As a great contemporary American painter, etcher and lithographer for more than 35 years, John Edward Dowell, 65, has now added master photographer to his list of accolades. During a debut of his latest exhibit “Cityscapes,” which opened in Philadelphia on Friday at the Brandywine Workshop, Dowell greeted dozens of art enthusiast, collectors and colleagues who were captivated by the scope and artistic depth of his latest collection. The North Philadelphia resident happened upon his innovative, cutting-edge style of photography less than a year ago as he experimented with combining lithographs with photo images of slices of urban life. Eventually, photography evolved into his primary focus. Dowell now shoots photos using a 4-by-5-format field camera and then digitally scans the images. The final pictures are produced as nearly 2-by-3 foot prints that are amazingly detailed. High-rise vantage points serve as his backdrop for capturing spectacularly detailed slices of urban life. What is most unusual is that each of Dowell’s photographs captures a natural, ethereal-type of iridescence that results from a blend of light and movement. As guests survey the multidimensional photographs, they marvel at the spectrum of color and cutting-edge photographic style. They also point out the clarity of everyday life captured in the photos, which convey the tale of metropolitan life in each respective city. In one photograph, Dowell shoots Chicago’s landmark Marina City, built by architect master Bertrand Goldberg. The photos capture the Twin Round Towers (aka corn cobs) in a multidimensional montage that reflects, in extraordinary detail, a McDonald’s work crew cleaning up after closing on the building’s ground floor; a Christmas tree twinkling in a eighth floor bay window, the continuous blur of saffron highway traffic and mirrored images reflecting iridescent scenes off of the Chicago River. “What blew me away was they aren’t like any approach to photography I’d ever seen,” said Allen Edmonds, president and executive director of Brandywine Workshop. “It’s the choice of contrast, the colors, the time of day and they were not manipulated. That’s composition … that’s understanding. So they’re really paintings. You couldn’t do this and just be a photographer with a camera. You’ve got to be an artist to do this.” Dowell’s works in canvas, ceramics and print currently sits in 58 private museum collections worldwide, including the Biblioteque Nationale Museum in Paris; the Philadelphia Museum of Art; New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture; and Yale University Museum. “ It’ s electric,” said Larry Robin, owner of Robin’ s Bookstore. “ His art has evolved from ceramics, to lithography, to photography. John has a mind that just doesn’ t stop. He wasn’ t a photographer. He was looking for a way to express the continuity of what you see.” He is the chair of the Printmaking Area and a full, 35-year tenured professor at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art. Dowell instructs students in his master’s of fine art classes to think beyond the rules, urging them to interpret art with the nostalgic vision of their mind’s eye and creative autonomy. A Lindback Award recipient, recognized for distinguished teaching, Dowell has taught his innovative perspective on art at universities spanning from Rome to Seattle. Still, it is his laid-back North Philadelphia style and artisan’s finesse that people notice before they’ve even glimpsed his work. “He was never trained as a photographer, if so, they would have told him that he couldn’t do this,” Robin said. “He knew what he wanted and he made the camera do what he wanted, which was to be able to see and sense the history, movement, continuity, while capturing the separateness and space.” A major element in Dowell’s art has been to find an abstract, visual interpretation of poetry and music. He has been drawn in particular to the equivalent of a artsy-style visual of jazz. “In my head, I’m thinking about music,” Dowell said. “I want to shoot where you see a reflection from the outside (and wonder) is that real or not real? But then, I’m shooting inside the building and you see people inside. But it’s all caught in an instant. I hear one guy blowing the saxophone and all of a sudden the drummer comes in with a solo. See that’s what I hear and I’m looking for that and I see that in my images.” Artist and poet Theodore Harris said, “It’s so shocking and beautiful. The fact that he has expanded his vision with photographs and experimentation, ever since I’ve seen John’s work from his abstract prints and drawing to this he’s always expanding his work … moving into realms of thought. This takes you into another world and let’s you know more about him as a person and an artist. That’s what it’s all about: taking chances and rolling the dice and see what we hit. I think John hit big time with this.” “Illuminations” featuring the photographic work of John E. Dowell Jr. and Andrea Baldeck runs through July 8 at the Brandywine Workshop, 730 S. Broad St . For more information contact (215) 546-3675 or visit http://www.brandywineworkshop.com/.

“…For many African Americans, it’s not an unfamiliar story that somebody passed.”

Blood test: Author explores famed father’s hidden lineage
Two months before he died of cancer, renowned literary critic Anatole Broyard called his grown son and daughter to his side, intending to reveal a secret he had kept all their lives and most of his own: He was Black.But even as he lay dying, the truth was too difficult for him to share, and it was his wife who told their daughter Bliss that her WASP, privileged Connecticut childhood had come at a price. Ever since his own parents, New Orleans Creoles, had moved to Brooklyn and began to “pass” in order to get work, Anatole had learned to conceal his racial identity.As he grew older and entered the ranks of the New York literary elite, he maintained the facade. Now his daughter Bliss tries to make sense of his choices and the impact of this revelation on her own life in her memoir, “One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life — A Story of Race and Family Secrets” ($24.99, Little, Brown).The book’s title stems from the uniquely American caste system that holds any person with any Black ancestry, no matter their appearance, is Black. The elder Broyard was Creole and his family ranged in every color from brown to white.Consequently, when 6-year-old Anatole’s family arrived in Brooklyn in 1927 his parents had to pass for white in order to get work in 1930s New York. The struggle for employment lead to Broyard’s eventual decision to cut his family ties to maintain his status in the white world.

Broyard was born into a post-Reconstruction America in which almost every state had a one-drop law on the books, or something equivalent by 1925.

The one-drop rule was ruled illegal by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967 when it overturned the Virginia Racial Integrity Act.

Non-Americans found those classifications outrageous. Simply put, America’s one-drop rule means if you are not quite white, then you are Black, whereas outside the U.S. culture if you are not quite Black, then you are white.

For most of the 1970s and ’80s, Anatole Broyard was a book critic for the New York Times who held considerable influence and was widely known in literary circles.

When Broyard died in October 1990 after a long, painful and debilitating struggle against cancer, continuing interest in him was insured by the disclosure that he was, as his wife told their two adult children, “part Black.”

According to Bliss Broyard, “My mother explained that my father had ‘mixed blood,’ and his parents were both light-skinned Creoles from New Orleans, where race-mixing had been common.” Broyard’s racial identity was an open secret to those who knew him and were aware — or suspected — he was not a white man.

Controversy erupted in many literary, journalistic and social circles when several years after Broyard’s death, Henry Louis Gates reported the mixed ancestry of the famed literary critic in an article for the New Yorker entitled, “The Passing of Anatole Broyard.”

“For many African Americans, it’s not an unfamiliar story that somebody passed,” said Bliss Broyard. “The people that I have met have appreciated the fact that I want to reclaim this history, because a lot of people feel like I didn’t have to explore this and make a part of who I am. There’s a respect for that, but at the same time my dad’s choice — and I can understand this, too — makes people angry.

You look at somebody like Walter White who passed to investigate lynchings, but then he was the first director of the NAACP, but he used it to benefit the race. I can understand the anger at my dad and I can also understand my dad’s desire outside of racial categories. He should not have had to do that. He isolated himself and paid a price.”

Eventually, the younger Broyard searches out the family she never knew in New York and New Orleans, and considers the profound consequences of racial identity while chronicling her evolution from sheltered WASP to a woman of mixed race ancestry.

“I think of racial identity as a product of your experience of how you’ve lived your life,” Broyard explained. “On any form I check all that apply: Black, white, Native American. I think of myself as someone with mixed race ancestry, or mixed.

“It’s interesting since the book has come out and has made me some sympathetic for my dad because there are some people out there that have really strong feelings about what I should call myself or what my dad really is. [They feel] either he wasn’t Black because he looked white or his ancestry was white and why should he have to call himself Black. People feel really strongly about that.

“Or some people say that there’s really no such thing as mixed and African Americans come in all shades and all African Americans are mixed. It’s interesting and people have really strong feelings about this still.”


Nutter: City needs new identity for future

Nutter: City needs new identity for futureMayor-Elect Michael Nutter addresses his vision of “The Identity of the New Philadelphia” at Franklin Hall in The Franklin Institute Science Museum Tuesday. — HIROKO TANAKA/TRIBUNE STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
As Philadelphia Mayor-elect Michael Nutter prepared to give a Tuesday evening keynote address titled “Identity and the New Philadelphia,” it was breaking news of the crime-riddled city that concerned many of the 400 guests gathered at the Franklin Institute.Moments before Nutter’s arrival, he had been briefed with a report of another Philadelphia police shooting.“Two more police officers were shot earlier this evening,’ said Nutter. “It is an unconscionable situation. We’ll do what we need to do on the streets of this city and make Philadelphia safe.”In what was Nutter’s first speech since his election, Nutter offered a visionary look at the future of Philadelphia in a dressed themed with the kickoff of the Institute’s new exhibit, “Identity: An Exhibition of You.”

Using the films “Rocky” and “The Philadelphia Story” as talking points, Nutter said residents need to embrace a new image of themselves.

Nutter says he believes the city is entering the “post-Rocky era” and suggested, “The Rocky identity is not working. For one thing, businesses do not want to come to the city if they think we’re an uneducated population not ready for the new world. And unfortunately, I have to share with you that the statistics about Philadelphia are overwhelming: We have the highest percentage of adults with a high school education and not college degrees.”

Nutter’s address and the subsequent question ad answer session was punctuated by several sustained rounds of applause while he explained his intention to expand education and employment opportunities for residents and the implementation of his get-tough policy of crime and litter.

“It’s about identity,” explained Nutter. “It’s about who we think we are and who we can be. And so as we grow our economy, as we get businesses to come here, as we think better of ourselves and each other in adopting a can-do kind of spirit and attitude.

“We have to change the model of what leadership is about in Philadelphia because that will change the model of who we are and what we’re about. So let this be the new identity of Philadelphia: the can-do city; the city that works; the city that keeps clean; the city that educate its kids; the city that works hard; the city that makes sure our streets are safe and that our kids are going to school; that we’re creating economic opportunity and that we value arts and culture.

“That we share our collective and wonderful city, not only with our suburban neighbors, but also with the rest of the country.”

=Originally Published in The Philadelphia Tribune=