Tribute To A Pioneer -- The Multifaceted Artistry Of Milt Simons Is Finally Getting Recognition

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"Milt Simons Remembered" continues at Martin-Zambito Fine Art, Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. through Aug. 4. 721 East Pike St., Seattle. 206-726-9509.

While attending Garfield High in the early 1940s, Milt Simons sent drawings to a national contest and won a scholarship to study art at the Disney studios. Figuring that a promising career lay ahead of him, Simons was elated. But when Disney officials learned he was black, the scholarship was canceled, no explanation.

Simons didn't give up.

He forged a career that merged expressionistic painting, jazz music and teaching art to inner-city students. In his promising early paintings, you can spot the influence of El Greco and Goya and a dash of Northwest surrealism. And his ensemble, Jasis, was a surprising blend of improvisational American jazz with Indian and Asian music that was a few decades ahead of its time.

Now, decades after his death, his work is getting some of the recognition it deserves, something friends say is long overdue.

"Milt was extremely talented," recalls friend and painter William Cumming, "probably the best fashion illustrator in town. He couldn't get a job doing it, of course, because he was black . . . His style was very continental, a lot of flair - way ahead of anything else being done around here."

Simons - who was also of Native American and Caucasian heritage - had used the G.I. Bill to study with George Grosz and Reginald Marsh at the Art Students League in New York. He graduated from the Burnley Art School in Seattle, then taught at Burnley from 1951-56. Still, Simons never broke the color barrier.

"Although my work was praised particularly in illustration, fashion design, figure painting and other commercial lines," Simons wrote in 1971, recalling his early career, "I was flatly refused any position, again because of color . . . Many times I have broken up brushes, thrown away my paints and work in deep remorse and bewilderment. But I am an artist. To function is to create."

That creativity ended abruptly two years later, when Simons died at age 50 of a heart attack.

His work, and the difficulties he faced as a black artist in Seattle, might have been forgotten if David Martin and Dominic Zambito hadn't heard about it through Simons' widow, Marianne Hanson, also an artist. Martin and Zambito's Capitol Hill gallery specializes in work by early 20th-century Northwest artists, particularly women and minorities who sometimes were overlooked in the local art hierarchy.

"I've been searching for years because I wanted to do a show of early black artists in the Northwest," Martin said, "but the only person I'd come up with who was working here at the time was James Washington Jr."

Washington, a self-taught sculptor and painter, now in his late 80s, moved to Seattle in the 1940s from Mississippi. He and Simons were friends. Washington remembers how difficult it was for an African American in the Northwest to succeed, especially before the civil-rights movement.

Washington is quick to point outthat he received a lot of support from collectors, white and black. But that wasn't always the case.

"Sure, I've had experiences with discrimination in the art world," he said by phone from his Seattle home. "And I've had it in other ways, too. When it came to making a living in Seattle, it was tough."

When Martin and Zambito learned about Simons' work in the visual arts, they pulled together an intriguing selection of Simons' paintings from the 1950s through early '70s. Now on display at the gallery, the exhibit includes drawings, photographs and a musical instrument that Simons designed and built called a Sito - a cross between an Indian sitar and a Japanese koto.

Over his career, Simons didn't limit himself to a single creative medium, but preferred what he called a "synthesis" of art forms. During the '50s, his energy went predominantly to painting and his work from that period is the strongest, showing sophistication and promise.

One gets the sense that Simons never had the opportunity to devote himself fully to his painting and develop a coherent direction. Nevertheless, the work got attention: Simons was invited to show at the Seattle Art Museum, the Henry Gallery, the Washington State Annual Art Exhibit and alongside other top regional artists at the Bellevue art fair. He didn't sell enough to get by, though, and in the '60s he began putting more energy into music and multimedia performance.

"Milt was always interested in jazz. He grew up with music," Simons' widow, Marianne Hanson, recalls. "His mother had a close friend who was a singer for Duke Ellington."

Simons and Hanson met and fell in love while students at the Burnley Art School, in the late 1940s. They married a few years later. Hanson admits that their interracial marriage at first caused some disapproval among family members and acquaintances. She prefers not to dwell on it. "I tend to not remember the snubs," she said.

To help support their various art projects and their son, Serge, Hanson dropped out of school and worked at office jobs doing clerical work. She later returned to college, graduating from the University of Washington with honors, and now exhibits her paintings at the Cafe Flora. Back in the '50s, she and Simons ran a studio gallery called Milann in the Madrona district, and for a while she played piano in his jazz ensemble.

The group's one recording is available on LP at Martin-Zambito. A Seattle Times performance review in 1969 called their music "a cool, mellow and brilliantly inventive form of jazz."

"Milt really believed in integration of the all the arts," Hanson recalls. "He said that back in the '40s but he wasn't able to do it until the 1960s."

That's when Simons, with his friend and fellow musician Paul Dusenbury, formed the Central Area School of the Performing Arts. In an interview with Seattle magazine in 1968, Simons spoke about his frustration trying to support himself and make art.

"For years I moved from job to job; I mean, I went through the whole bag - Boeing, everything. I was literally going crazy with all these visions and no outlet. It's like you're being pushed down into the slime, and everyone's trampling over you in their rush to get somewhere . . . But one day you look up and see somebody, and you know he's listening, that he's tuned in to you. That's what it was like with Paul and myself. We were both searching for the same thing - just begging people to stop for a minute and look at what we were doing."

Response to the school's performances was good, but despite a fund-raiser put on by the Henry Gallery in 1969 called "Art for CASPA's Sake" and favorable reviews from the press, the school never found a source of permanent funding. Nevertheless, Simons was not the type to be bitter.

"He never was granted very much recognition - the Northwest scene was controlled by a few artists and there weren't many galleries at the time. But I think Milt would be the last person who'd want people to give him credit out of guilt," Hanson says.

"He was highly talented and anything he put his hand to he could accomplish . . . there was always a sense of hope and possibility."