Elly Simmons


This woman, who takes things as they come,
and as they come has developed,
from her first emergences 23 years ago,
---the same year that Ronald Reagan
came to power---, a powerful
engagement with issues of social
injustice and disorder,
and a strong sense of art as a weapon
against the reactionary forces
that have ruled this country
for most of our lives,

---I mean, a woman who has developed
as an artist with that texture of a
cultural worker that lowers the boom
on the capitol A for Artist
and sees herself in closer proximity
with those---women and men alike,
and people in particular everywhere,
---who are involved with living
their lives with the most powerful
creative resonances

in order to transform oppressive conditions
and uplift the human condition.
She’s only in her 40’s
and there’s already a body of work
linking her to the finest creators of
the post-WW2 years:
with paintings, books covers,
memorials of revolutionary spirits,
as well as lithographs tapestries, collages.

She has said it simply, what she’s about:
“I want my work to express beauty
and spirit, to carry my political passions
as a cry against injustice and to call
for a celebration of eros, the creative
life force.” This is a woman talking
in a way that most woman would
immediately understand, and it
is no accident that one of the most
prominent images in her works

is the head of a woman “arrived”
at her brush from archetypical depths
of an Africa or Latin America or
Holocaust, and these faces, some
of them colossal, all of them made
with brushes of brilliant colors,
with a burning stillness that evokes
Compassion or Challenge or Germination
(these are some of their very titles)
are faces of one face, the face of

Sister. They can wear lips that are born
of voodoo, tears that hang like earrings
from eyelashes. Their noses can curve
at their wings like fetuses of caresses,
and their cheeks be written upon with
spirals and other suggestions of shamanic
art. When Simmons’ sisters weep, their
tears are great commas of light that
sentence the soul to understanding
and, more often than not, the heads

are ringed with spikes of variations
of the rays of the sun, amid doves or
fruits afloat in a sea of colors
bursting with embodiment and verging
on what, in other works, makes it clear
that Simmons is nothing less than a
visionary painter of contemporary
moment and quality. And it is some of
these visions that I now want to explore
in order to realize and emphasize

that when she involves herself with,
say, the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln
Brigade, or creates a memorial collage
to honor the life of Paul Robeson
(who was probably the greatest American
artist of the 20th Century in that, no matter
what he did---as football player, as singer
and movie star--- it was impossible for
him to disembody himself by an aesthetic
refusal to relate “performance” to


the liberation not only of his own African-
American people, but of all other people
In this, and in every other, land)---I say
when Elly Simmons responds to the
living memory or current activities of
the communist andor radical tradition
of the working class, she is fed, literally
nourished, by a modern classical tradition
of struggle that resonates throughout her
more ambitiously visionary works.

In “Street Abandon” a 1986 pastel on
rag paper, for example, the image is
of a woman in a chair, but turned in such
a way that she is without feature,
a strikingly stark emptiness of a grey-
white form under a window-like space
that is also evocative of a black flag
itself wearing a mourning-band.
The visionary aspect of this work is
in the powerful ambiguity that Simmons

evokes between being inside and outside
at the same time. The figure indeed seems
to be inside, if not in the corner of, a room;
but at the same time so much of oppression
from outside is suggested that she appears
outside as well, and this strongly
expressionist work furthermore suggests,
by the nub of a head in the arm of the eerily
composed female form, the head of an infant
also abandoned from within and without.

It was in the 80’s that one began definitively
to see the streets of this country fill up
with open palms and a homeless misery that
was different in quality from even the days
of the Great Depression. It was then that
a sense of abandonment began to manifest
not only in those on the streets but in those
who, though more secure, began slowly to
understand that, in a society such as ours,
a kind of homeless groundlessness was

becoming the destiny of the human spirit,
and that homelessness would never be
abolished until the whole system of
capitalism was overhauled. It was during
this period that the “streets” of the city
entered Elly Simmons work, and these
are manifested in powerful works
reflecting as well the appearance of
women cast into utter poverty. Her
“A Quiet Violence” depicts a woman

on the ledge of a building that is at the
same time evoked as a brick wall,
beside a bundle of her belongings,
holding a cane in a kind of tense
meditation above pieces of crumpled
paper or small stones, while above her,
inset into the wall, is a giant pair of lips,
with teeth and the dark depths of a mouth,
as if a magnification of the woman’s
own anguish and misery of condition.

Her lithographs of “Street Hunger” also
are of this period. These depict people
in misery, alone or on a breadline, boxed
in poverty, and the poverty is magnified
by Simmons’ depiction of them as
counter-pointed by an infinity of windows
and doors as well as lines like shuttered
bars, all of whose bright almost shamanic
coloring intensifies the misery of the men
and women who are the focus of the works.

Her street “language” is perhaps best summed
up in a brilliant wool tapestry entitled
“Night Language.” There, a giant Coyote
(which evokes the mythic animal and at the
same time suggests the name of the political
group that has worked in defense of prostitutes)
stands, with symbolic flames rising from its
belly and a sun and rays on its cheek, on a
cosmic street whose buildings are composed
of white lines on a black background,


lines that also evoke voodoo-like faces and
trees and fields of cornstalks growing. The
image of the Coyote reappears in another
of her street-visionary work, “The Herald,”
in which a woman is stretched horizontally
across the painting blowing the trumpet
of judgment above the street where
the animal and a street guy squeezing
a puppet-sized woman in his arm stand,
the guy “blasted” into self-recognition. .

The flying woman in this work is evocative
of Chagall who, with Blake, have influenced
Simmons’ work. As well they should have.
For it is her continuous attempt to realize
a visionary language that both realizes
and affirms art and politics at a heightened
poeterotic level that renders her works so
meaningful. Her Russian-Jewish heritage,
---depicted in the shaman-expressionist
work she composed for A Traveling

Jewish Theater’s production of Saul
Ansky’s “The Dybbuk”---informs the work
that shows the naked form of a woman
penetrated flames of the pogromed
shtetl, or Jewish ghetto, but with also
the suggestion of the burning flames
of mystic possession that marks the central
theme of that grand piece of theater.
Simmons captures the dybbuk perfectly.

Always open to the struggles against
injustice, ever aware of the traps that
the people are being lead into by the false
leaders of this land, Elly Simmons has
dedicated her life to expressing that
realm where everyday oppressions
on the material plane are overcome
by the infusion of both very ancient
and very contemporary traditions.



Her many solo exhibitions, participations
in group shows, graphic works for political
causes and memorials, her book covers
for bi-lingual presentations, and the countless
other manifestations for which she has made
herself available---all attest to an artist
of international range and depth whose work
stands shoulder to shoulder with those moving
with the unified joy of struggle and peace that is
the soul of all artistic feeling.

---Jack Hirschman
San Francisco
February 2003

artist statement

To reach the artist, contact:
Elly Simmons, PO Box 463,
Lagunitas, CA 94938
(415) 488-4177
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