The grandson of a slave from Jackson, Tennessee, artist Milton "Milt" Simons grew up in Seattle, attended Garfield High School, and served in the Army during World War II. He enrolled in the private Burnley School of Art and Design in Seattle following the war and then studied at the Arts Student League in New York. After returning to his hometown, he was prominent in art exhibits and one-man shows, and became a teacher at Burnley for five years. His work has been featured since 1948 in regional galleries, studios, and exhibitions. In addition to painting and drawing, Simons had a wide range of artistic talents, including dance, voice, and musical instruments. He died in Seattle in 1973.
Tennessee Roots, Seattle Beginnings
Milt Simons' grandfather, Andrew J. Marshall, was born on New Year's Day 1850, in Jackson, Tennessee, to a slave couple in a one-room shack on a farm as the fourth and only surviving child. In 1858, at age 7, his father died and his mother abandoned him alone in their home. Now orphaned, and with no formal education, unable to read or write, Andrew had no one to meet his basic needs as a child. Fortunately for him, his survival skills kicked in.
During these early years, Marshall claimed to have worked for a German family, caring for an elderly woman who spoke no English. He was taught by the family to speak fluent German and read the bible in German and English. It was illegal at the time to teach a slave to read or write; the anti-literacy laws were such that he would have been punished severly had he been caught. Marshall, who became deeply religious during this period, worked for various farmers along his journey. By the age of 14 in 1865 -- the year Congress passed the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery -- he had located his father's brother, Green Marshall, in Nashville, Tennessee, just 131 miles from his starting point in Jackson.
Marshall lived with his uncle and aunt for the next 29 years. In 1891, at age 40, he met his future wife, 19-year-old Mattie Drake (1872-1963), an outspoken and quick-tempered soul, the opposite of Marshall's quiet, reserved personality. The couple married on August 11, 1894, in Nashville. Mattie had a son named Eugene McCullough (1886-?) from a previous relationship. He later changed his last name to Marshall.
In 1898, Andrew and Mattie welcomed their first child, Josephine Frances Marshall (1898-1965). Laura Marshall (1900-1913) arrived two years later. In the ensuing years, the Marshalls decided they wanted to raise their children distant from the overt racism in Tennessee, with Andrew coming to believe that he could escape the oppressive economic conditions and head north for a better life. Mattie had family and friends in Seattle who periodically sent letters touting it as a great place for families, and by 1906, Andrew had saved enough money to move his family by train to Seattle. He and Mattie would have four more children, all born in Seattle: Goldie (Golden) Elizabeth Marshall (1906-?), Irene Marshall (1907-?), Cecil Marshall (1909-?), and Andrew J. Marshall Jr. (1911-1991).
Growing Up in Seattle
Andrew Marshall promoted education and encouraged his children to stay in school. Having been deprived of a formal education himself, his children taught him how to write his name. For Andrew, tending to family and establishing relationships with each of his children came first. In 1914, his oldest daughter, Josephine Frances, 17, met and married 21-year-old Frederick (Doug) Douglas Simons (1893-1966), and three years later they welcomed their first child, Frederick Douglas Simons Jr. (1917-1987). He was followed by Louise (Sister) Simons (1919-1989) and Elizabeth Frances Simons (1921-1932), and then on October 15, 1923, by Milton Simons, who was born at the family home, weighing in at a whopping 15 pounds.
Two more siblings followed: Earnest (Ernest or Ernie) James Simons (1928-2011) and John Leon Simons (later John Leon Rodgers) (b. 1930). The Simons children grew up surrounded by an extended family of aunts, uncles, and cousins, and with a strong religious foundation set by their grandfather Andrew. The family was poor, having few luxuries during the Great Depression, but seemed to have a bottomless pot of food and love to share with friends and family. They listened to all types of music, from Indian chants, jazz, classical, and Christian hymns. Milton was well acquainted with jazz played in nightclubs and spirituals of churches. In his adult life, these musical influences would be the inspiration for his two bands: The Puget Sounds (combination of jazz and Indian styles) and The Jasis Group (avant-garde).
His grandfather Andrew played a pivotal role in his development, recognizing the broad range of talents young Milton possessed, and nurturing and encouraging his creative impulses. Simons was strongly attracted to and expressed himself through the arts as a child and teen, crafting his drawings, paintings, and musical abilities whenever possible. He attended Rainier Elementary School, Washington Junior High School, and then Garfield High School from 1938-1941. High school art classes were the extent of his formal training. He sang in the Garfield a cappella chorus, performing in school productions, concerts, radio programs, festivals, and other engagements.
While at Garfield, Simons entered the Disney National Art Scholarship contest, sending a portfolio of his drawings as a first attempt to have his art recognized. He was awarded a scholarship to study at Disney. Overwhelmed with joy, he was flown to California by Disney to meet the studio staff, but upon learning Simons was African American, the scholarship was cancelled with no explanation, and no apology. Disappointed and disgusted, but not deterred, he returned home to Seattle. It would be another decade before Disney hired its first African American animator, a writer and comic-book artist named Floyd E. Norman (b. 1935).
Army, Art Education and Early Art Career
Standing 6 feet and weighing 162 pounds, Simons enlisted in the Army during World War II at Fort Lewis on January 11, 1941, six months before high school graduation. At the time, he considered himself a commercial artist designing a variety of images.
In 1944, while still in the Army, he learned of the death of his beloved grandfather Andrew at age 93. His grandfather would remain with him in his heart, along with a stronger belief in spirit and faith. That same year, Simons enrolled in a Watercolor Art Festival held in Honolulu, Hawaii, winning first prize in arts and crafts. It was his first painting award.
On November 26, 1945, he was honorably discharged from the Army, and on Apirl 21, 1946 he married 18-year-old Alberta Harris in Seattle. Little is known about their marriage or eventual dissolution. Meanwhile, Simons pursued his interest in arts, later using his G.I. benefits to study at the Burnley School of Art and Design, and at the Arts Students League of New York. From 1946 to June 1947, he studied advertising art at the Thomas A. Edison Vocational School while continuing to build his skills. In 1948, the Seattle Art Museum held its 34th annual exhibit of Northwest artists at Volunteer Park, displaying Simons' oil painting Pontius, 3rd and Stewart.
Also in 1948, he enrolled at the Burnley School at 905 East Pine Street (in the original Cornish School building), occupying the third floor. Burnley was founded in 1946 by Canadian-born John Edwin (1886-1981), an educator, painter, designer, and illustrator, and his wife Elizabeth (Elise) Burnley (1898-1989). Simons was the first African American to attend the school, and with that realization, understood how important it was to succeed. The school allowed him the opportunity to expand his artistic skills and experiences, and to further his education. He painted after school and worked closely with Nickolas (Nick) J. Damascus (1920-2014), a teacher at Burnley who influenced his work.
Marvin T. Herard (b. 1929), who attended Burnley with Simons, remembered that "attending Burnley felt like winning the lottery. There were great minds that had all kinds of ideas" (Herard interview). Herard said the art classes were well integrated with Asians, women, handicapped students, and blacks. As Herard recalled:
"Milt was a good classmate in school. I learned a lot being around Milt. He was the first black person I was in contact with. I lived in Auburn and there were no black families. He impacted my thinking; he had a quick mind, his mind was like a razor and he was always coming up with ideas. He was a talented partner and draftsman. He mastered colors and materials. Milt had interest in music. Milt told me he dreamed of a musical piece titled 'Bath Tub Sandada.' I wondered, what did it sound like?" (Herard interview)
From February-August 1949, Simons attend the nonprofit Art Students League of New York at 215 West 57th Street while living at the Army Hall at 1560 East Amsterdam in New York. The school was brimming with extraordinary talents. After his training at the League, he transferred in 1949 back to Burnley, where he met Marie Ann Hanson (1932-2015), a daughter of Swedish immigrants who was attending Burnley on scholarship. Marie Ann (Marianne) was 5 feet 9, tall and elegant. The couple began dating and soon fell in love, though their relationship was met with disapproval by many, from family members to acquaintances. A pianist, visual artist, and wire sculptor, Hanson graduated from Garfield High School in 1950 and later the University of Washington. In 1949, she designed a memorial at Garfield for pupils and graduates who were killed in World War II. On September 1, 1951, they were married at the First Methodist Church in Seattle.
In January 1951, Simons' religious paintings were displayed in two exhibits hosted by Burnley and the American Association of University Women (AAUW) in conjunction with the Art League of Everett held at the Everett Public Library. In May 1951, he graduated from Burnley with honors and, urged on by Burnley students, immediately became part of the teaching staff -- though the doors to a prominent teaching position remained closed. His work was praised mostly for his illustrations, fashion design, and figure painting. He was instrumental in the development of art and music programs in the community. But when it came to expressing his interest in any significant position, he was turned down, even though he substituted for other teachers' classes.
The Charles and Emma Frye Free Public Art Museum was opened on February 8, 1952 at Cherry Street and Terry Avenue in Seattle by Walser Sly Greathouse (1901-1966), estate trustee and president of the art collection. Charles Henry Frye (1858-1940) and his wife Emma Lamp Frye (1860-1934) were well-known collectors who displayed their paintings privately. Their collection of art over the years would become the basis for the museum. Six months after the museum opened, a group exhibition was hosted with 12 artists. Simons was among a group that also featured Ann Carlander, Clarence Steele, Norman (Norm) Thompson, Marvin Herard, Charles Johnson, Dale Cox, Robert Jones, and Geraldine (Jerry) Standaert. In September 1952 at the Miller-Pollard Gallery at 4538 University Way in Seattle, Milton and Marianne Simons' paintings were displayed in an exhibit hosted by the Northwest Contemporary Arts Association.
In 1953 while teaching at Burnley, Simons had to find more work to support a growing family. His wife was expecting a child and art was not providing the financial stability he needed. He worked briefly as a longshoreman, gave private art lessons, and began working at The Boeing Company on May 1, 1953 as a storekeeper. He soon learned the company would be hosting its fourth annual Boeing Art Exhibit at the Seattle plant. He submitted his painting titled Flutist and won both the grand and first prizes in the oil painting category out of 159 entries. On August 16, 1953, the Simons welcomed their son Serge Milton Simons. In December 1953, a Simons painting titled Chamber Music dominated one wall at the William McClelland Art Gallery.
In the spring of 1954, Henry Gallery at the University of Washington invited Simons to show one of his works at an exhibit for artists of Washington co-sponsored by the Music and Art Foundation of Seattle. He selected his oil painting titled Nude Before the Fireplace. In 1955, the Campus Gallery showed some Simons paintings expressed in a nineteenth century German style influenced by painters Jack Levine (1915-2010) and Claim Soutine (1893-1943), and painter, sculptor, and architect El Greco (1541-1614).
In Janury 1956 Simons left Burnley to teach privately and further pursue his artistic goals. That same year he enrolled in the Cornish School of Music to study piano, counterpoint, and music, studying until 1957. He continued to work at Boeing until July 29, 1957. But Simons found himself outside of the art cliques due to his determination not be dictated to and pigeonholed. To maintain his integrity and individuality, he found himself virtually an unknown in his own community.
Many timed during this period, Simons wanted to throw away his paints, yet he needed to create to function, and found inner peace by deciding to continue. With the support of his wife, a dream, a voracious appetite to open a gallery that explored any medium and showcased their work, and with limited cash, they found a building in the Madrona neighborhood in Seattle. The Milann Art Gallery and Studio opened on August 16, 1959, on their son's sixth birthday. Milann was the first of three art studios owned and operated by the Simons. Nine years later, in 1968, that same building would become headquarters for the Seattle Black Panthers.
The 1960s and Early 1970s
By 1960, Simons had been a painter, art teacher, music composer, and gallery director. The Milann Art Gallery closed in 1961, but on December 2, 1962, Milton and Marianne opened a gallery and studio known as the Fulton on Baker, located at 1501 Fulton Street in San Francisco. In concurrence with the opening, his artwork was displayed at San Francisco's Presidio Public Library. Simons showcased his talent in galleries and one-man art shows throughout the next decade.
In 1966, he meet Paul Rendell Dusenbury (1935-1998), an artist and musician. Their first of several collaborations presented visual imagery, a new art form using projectors to show their musical compositions on walls and ceilings, synthesizing electric sound, light, and color. They demonstrated this artistic experience for the Creative Arts Association in a meeting at the Everett School District administration building. Also in 1966, the WHY Gallery at 23rd Avenue and E Olive Way in Seattle showed 30 of his paintings, most of which were of jazz musicians with titles such as Soul Meetin, Kinda Prayin, Spirit Fuel, Bright Blues, Golden Strike, and Soulin. Several other paintings were concerned with nightlife, incuding Space Chart, Blues Street, Moon City, Philadelphia, Mississippi, and Journey. Simons' paintings would be showcased off and on throughout 1966 at the WHY Gallery. In 1967, Cellar Gallery in Kirkland hosted a representational show displaying Simons' talents on artworks titled Celestial Visitation, Ascension, A Cherry is a Rose, and Contemplation.
In February 1968, the second collaboration between Dusenbury and Simons pioneered the nonprofit Central Area School of Performing Arts (CASPA) in Seattle, with Dunsenbury as president and Simons as vice president. Their goal was to develop a liberal-arts curriculum that included fine arts, offering classes in painting, music, drama, dance, poetry, music, theatrical pieces, and visual art. Yet due to lack of funding, CASPA never realized its full potential. The school's multimedia performances were held over a three-year period at such venues as the Seattle Center Flag Pavilion, Henry Gallery, Volunteer Park, and the Lyric and Picolli theaters.
It was in 1968 when Simons began hand-carving a wooden musical instrument he called "SITO." It was a cross between an Indian Sitar and Japanese Koto, and it took Simons two years to complete. It remained a family treasure long after his death.
Simons opened another gallery on November 29, 1970, the Origin Arts Originals at 321 E Pine Street in Seattle, a small studio that featured his work inspired by Indian, African, and Northwest themes. The studio, the third and last owned and operated by the Simonses, closed its doors in 1973.
In March 1971, Simons with his band Jasis -- also featuring Paul Dusenbury on piano, and Dave Tuss on drums -- performed live on KING-FM radio. It worked out so well the trio was asked to appear in a series of informal sessions through June 1971 that included explanations and examples of jazz improvisations.
Simons and Dusenbury collaborated a third time on Jasis, producing its only recorded album, Jasis: Spontaneous Improvisation, released in 1972 on the Topaz Label in Seattle. The album consists of three long tracks, two songs on side one ("Bhimpalas," based on East Indian Rag, and "Spanisch Mode,"), and one long song on side two ("Inner Space"). The LP was still in circulation in 2019 and doing well with jazz enthusiasts. The quartet consisted of Simons, vibes; Dusenbury, piano and flute; Milt Gerard, bass; and Jimmie Williams, percussions.
Nearly 40 of Simons' artworks from 1950 to 1971 were collected by family, friends, and associates. Former Lt. Governor John Cherberg (1910-1992) was a fan of Simons' work. He commisioned Simons to paint an image of Husky Stadium from above, using an aerial photograph by George Carkonen (1911-1981) of The Seattle Times as his source and guide.
Simons suffered from coronary artery disease and was only 51 when he died at home on November 11, 1973. Marianne Hanson retained many of his paintings, drawings, and other documentation of his work, until her death on October 10, 2015, leaving behind Simons' legacy for their son, Serge Milton Simons, and his family.
In the years following his death, Simons received his deserved recognition from the art world. The 1990s and 2000s brought a surge of interest in African American artists and an appreciation of those who laid the foundation. The Pacific Northwest was ripe and ready for Simons. In November 1999, Random Modern Gallery in Tacoma opened an exhibition "Northwest Art 1920-1962" featuring Simons' piece Nude After Bath, a portrait of a woman seated toweling herself in the style of Edgar Degas (1834-1917).
On October 4, 2014, the B2 Gallery in Tacoma hosted a group exhibit "The Black Aesthetic" featuring 13 original works by Simons: New York Woman (1948), Marine Hospital From Dearborn (1950), Milt & Marianne (1955), Introspection (1957), Flutist (1959), Northwest Dreaming (1960), City Reflections (1960), Northwest Memories (1960), Day Street South (1961), San Francisco Nude (1962), Self Portrait (1969), Through The Trees (1972), and Song of Life (date unknown).
On January 29, 2017, the Cascade Art Museum in Edmonds held an exhibit called "Northwest Social Realism & The American Scene 1930-1950" in which Simons' Self-portrait (1948), painted when he was 25, was displayed, and in 2019, the Tacoma Art Museum recognized three of his works: Introspection (1957), Self Portrait (1969), and Untitled (figures) (1950-1959).