(Catholic Herald photo by Ernie Mastroianni)

Sylvester Sims is a gifted artist, a prolific painter whose works are as likely to be found in corporate headquarters across the country as in neighboring homes.

However, he may shrug at the idea that he might be a community icon, an inspiration to generations past and present, for his contributions to the cultural neighborhood known as Bronzeville in Milwaukee. Bronzeville was defined as the area along Walnut Street between King Drive and 12th Street. It was here during the 1930s, that the number of African American-owned businesses exceeded all other areas of the city.  Sims’ paintings often capture the era and the people in this historic community.

Painting since he was a boy in the 1930s and inspired by the paintings on the walls of St. Benedict the Moor Parish, Sims feels his talent is God-given, and as such the influence of his work is really God’s doing. He said knowing this is a gift makes him want to share it with others.

“People who come over, sometimes if they like a painting, I’ll just give it to them,” he said. “I don’t normally sell my work, but if someone asks me to donate a painting for a charity, I do that.”

Sims’ family moved to the area from Louisiana, Baptists who found a new home in the Catholic congregation of St. Ben’s.

“It was a real community,” said Sims of what drew his family to the parish. He has many photos of large gatherings and dinners in the church to illustrate the point. “We didn’t have TV, and just one radio – so the church was our connection.”

Sims studied drawing and painting at Layton School of Art where teachers encouraged him to pursue his talent. Despite tough financial times – Sims would chew on the ends of matches when he had no brushes to apply paint to canvas – he never let setbacks keep him from his artistic pursuits.

A visual impairment caused by crossed eyes complicated the economic hardships, although Sims said he could do anything just like other kids. Determined to prove as much led him to work out and ultimately achieve many athletic goals.

He competed in high diving, weight lifting, amateur boxing, track, and semi-pro football. In 1943 he won the Bronzeville swimming and diving competition, and one year later pulled off an upset by winning the state high diving championship, becoming the first black man in Wisconsin history to win the title.

: Sylvester Sims
Age: 80
Occupation: Retired truck driver
and artist
Parish: St. Francis of Assisi,
Favorite movie: Doesn’t go to movies
Book recently read: Anything
on Jazz

Throughout his athletic endeavors, Sims said he kept the Blessed Virgin Mary close.

“I always prayed as a boy and when I was competing for the Virgin Mary to straighten my eyes,” he explained. “I thought she could do wonders, and I feel as though she has given me a guardian angel.”

The answer to his prayer came in the form of a blow to the head during a boxing match in the late 1940s during which Sims’ eyes were finally straightened.

Sims said he had wanted to be an architect and remembers meeting the renown Frank Lloyd Wright just before the Second World War, but his calling remained in art, albeit a sideline during his 40 years as a truck driver.

The untimely death of his son Robert in 1974 – he was murdered in California, a case of mistaken identity, according to Sims – caused him to withdraw from painting for 18 years. It was a vocation that he said has otherwise deepened his faith.

“I would often paint with my children, and after Michael passed, it was too painful,” he recalled. “It was a friend of mine, a pastor, who reminded me that the Lord loans us out, and he calls us back. I took great comfort in that.”

Franciscan Fr. Mike Bertram, pastor of St. Francis Parish, said Sims’ quiet modesty can’t diminish his contribution to or influence on the community.

“The Sims’ family has been one of solid faith, and a great influence in the Bronzeville community. Sylvester is a quieter man who shares his faith through his art. He’s shared his gifts and talents through his contact with people and in schools,” the priest said.

Sims remains plain-spoken and matter-of-fact about his art, his faith and his life.

“I feel good when I paint. I feel God has gifted me, and as we’re all here for such a short time, I want to accomplish what I can,” he said.