A woman with long, black braids stands near an arched window in one image. On another wall, an angel observes a chess player pondering his next move. The colorful scenes are part of Once Upon a Time, a collection of paintings based on folk tales by artist Justin Simmons. A reception for the artist will be held March 20 at Create Arlington, and the collection is on display through April 17.
Simmons, 41, says he’s always enjoyed sketching but didn’t get serious about painting until after his daughter was born and he was watching an episode of Good Times that incorporated work by professional athlete and artist Ernie Barnes.
“It inspired me to start dabbling with paint and start educating myself on how paint actually works,” he says. “The show reminded me, ‘Hey, you’re good at this. Why don’t you try it again?’ Before that, I was a sketch artist. I could draw anything with pencil, but with paint, it has a mind of its own.”
Since moving to North Texas from Muskogee, Oklahoma, Simmons says he’s learned about various art programs in different communities. His work can now be seen on murals in Grand Prairie as well as public art in Arlington, such as the star he painted for the Texas Rangers right in front of the stadium, as well as a star for the police department.
Although formally trained in web design, Simmons says he’s mainly self-taught as an artist. He started out sketching and did “a little graffiti here and there” before moving to oil and acrylic. A big motivator was Disney’s Princess and the Frog, which his daughter watched a lot, he says, adding that he thought it would be great to see more folk tales that depicted Black characters.
“I’ve always been a fan of folk tales,” he says, “because I love the morals behind it.”
Simmons began the Once Upon a Time series with the “Frog Prince” using his daughter as a model, he says, recalling how she was upset because she didn’t like the idea of kissing a frog. A painting of the Queen of Hearts was next followed by characters such as Bluebeard and the Pied Piper.
“He can tell the story on every one of these paintings,” says Mark Joeckel, founder of Create Arlington. “And that makes it approachable.”
Joeckel says he met Simmons through a group of local artists who have stayed connected through pop-up shows, the East Main Street Arts Festival, social events and through common friends.
“His art is very compelling,” Joeckel says, noting that, while he’s not an art critic, people have shared with him that Simmons' work “technically, it’s brilliant as well.”
Within the folk tale paintings are the faces of some of Simmons’ family members and friends. A large-scale painting of a Black boy named Solomon lifting up a star is still in the works. It was originally designed to cover a wall, but Simmons says the creation called for redesign, minus the kid.
“I just turned it down,” he says of the project.
Simmons, who lives in Fort Worth and works in Grand Prairie, says when it comes to making art, he’s completely focused. A book to accompany his illustrations will be presented at the artist reception and is also available at blurb.com.
“I just want to be an inspiration not just to kids, but to everybody,” Simmons says. “Art is needed.”
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