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=