Carroll Harris Simms, master sculptor and ceramist, painter, jeweler, author, and educator, was born on April 29, 1924, in Bald Knob, Arkansas, to Rosa Hazel (Harris) Simms and Tommie Wesley Simms. At an early age he became interested in art while helping his mother with her quilting and gardening tasks. The beauty of nature and its gracious forms remained with him for a lifetime. Simms never knew his father and was reared in the home of his maternal grandparents in Bald Knob, where he attended the Bald Knob Special School, a one-room school for Blacks. In 1938 Simms’s mother moved him and his older sister Margaret to Toledo, Ohio, to live with a great uncle who was a Baptist minister. He attended Scott High School, and while there he met Ethel Elliot, a White teacher who spurred him to study art, a field that was discouraged and deemed “impractical” by some of his relatives.
Simms attended Hampton Institute in Virginia (1944–45); the University of Toledo (1945-47); the Toledo Museum School of Art in Ohio (1945–48); Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan (1948—50), where he earned B.F.A. and M.F.A. degrees and became the first African American to graduate from the prestigious institution; and Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan (1949–50).
In 1950 Professor Simms joined the art faculty at Texas Southern University in Houston. He remained there for thirty-seven years and is credited with building the program from the ground up, along with department founder and Hampton Institute colleague John Biggers. Soon after his arrival, the Texas art world began to take note of his immense talent. In 1951 and 1953 Simms was awarded a first prize for textile design and jewelry design from the Dallas Museum of Art. For his ceramic stoneware, he received the Purchase Award from the Cranbrook Art Museum in Bloomfield Hills in 1953. During this same period he developed a unique sculpture program for art majors at Texas Southern. Hearing news of available clay from a potter friend, the artist and John Biggers drove to San Antonio to get a truckload of fine West Texas clay. It was free to anyone willing to dig it up and transport it. Simms then designed a potter’s wheel based on the kind he used while at Cranbrook and had it built for his students in the sculpture studio.
Simms was a lover of great music, and many of his works were inspired by African-American spirituals. Classical music filled the sculpture studio when he was in the art building.
Simms received two consecutive Fulbright Fellowships to study abroad from 1954 to 1956. While in London, the artist studied at the Slade School of Fine Art and the British Museum, as well as the Royal College of Art, the Central School of Arts and Crafts, and the Morris Singer Bronze Art Foundry. During this period, Simms was apprenticed to the famous British abstract sculptor Jacob Epstein, who he later cited as a major influence on his work. He also studied African art with renowned art historian William Fagg, then curator of Ethnographic Art at the British Museum. Simms studied and documented numerous works from the collection of Benin and Yoruba art at the British Museum. The techniques and designs expressed in these works became an integral part of Simms’s own sculpture as well as the foundation for his teaching methodology. After having studied in depth the richness of African culture through the numerous works of art from West Africa at the British Museum, Simms became determined to travel to Africa to learn firsthand of these ancient sculpture techniques. With a Southern Fellowship grant, Simms traveled to Nigeria in 1968 and for a year studied the pottery and sculpture traditions of the Ibo and Yoruba master artists of Nigeria.
In 1964 Simms studied modern ceramic production techniques in Stockholm, Sweden, and in 1974 the artist studied bronze casting techniques at the Alcogonales Foundry in Mexico City, Mexico, with Abraham Gonzales. In 1973 Simms returned to West Africa where he lectured at Fourah Bay College, Sierra Leone; the University of Liberia in Monrovia; and the University of Lagos and the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. As a member of the United States Zonal Committee for the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture, Simms participated in the historic assembly of Pan-African artists, Festac ’77 in Lagos and Kaduna, Nigeria. This event remains the largest gathering of artists of African descent to ever occur; it received worldwide acclaim for its vision and predicted the global connection between such artists in the twenty-first century.
In 1978 Carroll Harris Simms coauthored the book Black Art in Houston: The Texas Southern University Experience with John Biggers. The book was published with the support of Houston art patron Susan McAshan and reflected the immense base of patronage which the two artists cultivated for their art programs. Simms’s art has been featured in numerous books and periodicals including American Negro Art; Afro-American Art and Craft; Jewelry Making: Creative Experience; Houston Reflections; and A History of African-American Artists: From 1792 to the Present.
As an accomplished elder in the field of African-American art, Carroll Harris Simms contributed immensely to the field through his great and brilliant productivity as well as his rigorous and inspired teaching methodology. He helped to define the field of sculpture in Texas and the United States and brought to it a distinctively Pan-African and spiritual perspective.
Professor Simms created four distinctive sculptures for the Texas Southern University campus: Man the Universe, The African Queen Mother, Jonah and the Whale, and A Tradition of Music. Other major sculptures are located in the downtown Houston business district. Simms’s work has helped to define Houston as a major center for public art. Internationally, Simms was commissioned to create A Garden of Ancient Yoruba Pottery for the University of Ibadan in Nigeria; Homage to a Shrine at the Palace of the Oba of Benin in West Africa; Arms for the Sculpture Garden in New Harmony, Indiana; and Christ and the Lambs for St. Oswald’s Church, Tile Hill, in Coventry, England. His knowledge of sculpture and art in general made him a valuable member of the Municipal Arts Commission for the city of Houston as well the advisory panel of the Texas Commission on the Arts and Humanities (later changed to the Texas Commission on the Arts) and the Cultural Arts Council of Houston.
While at Texas Southern University, Simms developed a unique program of ceramics and sculpture which he taught to generations of young students. He used Texas clay and combined it with the unique glaze formulas he developed while at Cranbrook. He also taught students the slab sculpture method which enabled them to create elaborate works in large scale. From his travels and studies of ceramic sculpture and pottery methods in Nigeria, Simms imparted to students a unique visual vocabulary of African symbols and motifs. The body of terra cotta shrine sculptures and glazed ceramics created by Simms’s students represents a distinct and unique contribution to the evolution of twentieth-century African-American sculpture.
Simms’s students include accomplished artists Calvin Hubbard; Henry Michaux; Earlie Hudnall, Jr.; Johnnie Jones; Jesse Sifuentes; Elizabeth Montgomery; Edward Mills; Bert Samples; Earl Jones; and numerous others who have distinguished themselves in the art world.
Carroll Harris Simms’s work is included in numerous museum and private collections including the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the Dallas African American Museum; the California African American Museum in Los Angeles; the Hampton University Museum; and the University Museum at Texas Southern University.
Simms served as professor of art at Texas Southern University until his retirement in 1987. He died on February 1, 2010, after a long illness. Memorial services were held at Texas Southern University and the Dallas African American Museum. In 1999 the board of trustees of the African American Museum in Dallas renamed the Southwest Black Art Competition and Exhibition the Carroll Harris Simms National Black Art Competition and Exhibition. In 2013 it was still held biennially and was considered a premier event in the American Southwest.