As part of its Black History Month celebration, Claflin University’s Arthur Rose Museum is showing the work of artist Danny Simmons through March 15.
Titled “Danny Simmons Blended: Fabric & Paint," the exhibit showcases 30 of Simmons’ vibrant, abstract pieces.
Simmons said he finds inspiration for his work in traditional African art as well as that of the abstract expressionists. He created a name to describe his genre: neo-African abstract expressionism.
“You know, I made that term up maybe about 10, 12 years ago,” he said. “And it really speaks to how much African art has influenced me – not just the sculpture, but the textile.”
He said he was also taken with how European modernists took African imagery and techniques and developed them.
“Really, before I got into the African art, I was drawn to the African images in the modern art of (Pablo) Picasso and (Jean) Clay, and a number of those people,” he said.
“So, what I did was, I interpreted that art through an African-American lens,” he said. “But I was also drawn to the abstract expressionists, like people taking freely from consciousness.
“And so I felt like my consciousness had been influenced, indirectly at first and now directly, by African art,” he said.
He said that abstract expressionists such as Norman Lewis were a huge influence on his own work.
“The largest influence on me after looking early on at the modernists was the Afro-cubist painter Wilfredo Lam, which really brought spirituality into my paintings,” he said.
“And I was able to see through his work African spirituality and the magic that he tried and he did access in his painting,” he said.
“At that time, I thought painting had to be more than just putting paint on a canvas – there had to be something really behind it,” he said.
The son of Daniel Simmons Sr., a truant officer and black history professor who also wrote poetry, and Evelyn Simmons, a teacher who painted as a hobby, Simmons holds a degree in social work from New York University and a master's degree in public finance from Long Island University.
He is also the older brother of hip-hop impresario Russell Simmons and rapper Joseph Simmons ("Reverend Run" of Run–D.M.C.).
He has some amusing childhood memories of growing up with his brothers.
“Joey ‘Run’ and I are 11 years different. And so I used to take him to the movies all the time,” he said. “At the time, I had a big afro and he had a lot of curly hair that he hadn’t combed.
“And I ran my afro pic through Run’s hair and he started screaming. And it got tangled up,” he said. “He always brings that up, like how I tried to comb his hair so we could go to the movies and tore the top of his head up.”
Closer in age, Simmons and brother Russell used to share a bedroom.
“We used to do a lot of things together, and I was around for the beginning of Def Jam (Records) and the beginning of hip-hop,” he said.
Along with Russell, Simmons established Def Poetry Jam, a long-running program on HBO.
Simmons estimates that he’s been painting for about 30 years now. He had dabbled in painting since his younger days but fully embraced it later, becoming a professional artist after realizing he hated his job with the Bureau of Child Support.
“Really, after I left my job as a social worker is when I really began my career and decided I was going to be a painter,” he said.
He is also a poet and published author. In 2004, he published “Three Days As The Crow Flies,” a fictional account of the 1980s New York art scene. He has also written a book of artwork and poetry called “I Dreamed My People Were Calling But I Couldn’t Find My Way Home.”
Simmons is the co-founder and chairman of Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation, which provides disadvantaged urban youth with arts access and education. As part of the foundation, he also founded Rush Arts Gallery and later converted part of his loft in Brooklyn, New York into the Corridor Gallery. The galleries show the works of artists who don’t have commercial representation through galleries or private dealers.
Simmons said he moved from Brooklyn to Philadelphia in 2015.
“Now I’m in Philadelphia, where I just opened an art gallery here,” he said.
He opened a third gallery, Rush Arts Philadelphia (RAP), to further his foundation’s mission.
Simmons has advice for aspiring artists.
“The biggest thing that I would tell any young artist is to try to develop and find their own voice,” he said.
“But really what helps you to make your mark is being an individual and finding what you want to do instead of just trying to follow trends, or trying to follow what you think will sell,” he said.
“Also, to be in the mix. Go to a lot of art shows, hang out with a lot of artists and meet people in the art world,” he said. “It’s nice to paint, but you have to be out there in the mix to get your work seen and noted.”