Bernice Johnson Sims’s subject matter spans the extraordinary to the quotidian and includes formative civil rights marches, lively family gatherings, and Sunday school picnics. Her paintings utilize flat patches of bright colors—punctuated by strong linework and circular mark making—to depict her rural Alabama upbringing. Sims once remarked: “I paint pictures of everyday, but in the past, like it used to be. I have to wait. Everything I paint I form it in my mind. It comes back to me.” Indeed, Sims’s memories are conveyed through a distinctive painterly style, in which figures appear to move and gesticulate among their surroundings. Active in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, she participated in voter registration drives and took part in the famous Selma-Montgomery march. Many of her images reflect these historic events, serving as visual reminders of African American history and the struggle for racial equity.

Sims’s colorful paintings are predominately biographical, drawing inspiration from both her childhood in Alabama and time spent as an activist. Born in Georgiana, a rural community known as the hometown of country music singer Hank Williams, she was the oldest of eight children. Money was often in short supply for the Sims family, and a young Bernice went to reside with her grandparents in the neighborhood of Hickory Hill. Unlike her hometown, her grandparents’ community was less racially segregated, which provided Sims an expansive network of friends and peers. Sims observed her next-door neighbor, Hattie, using a brush and paint to construct pictures on canvas. She inquired about learning, and soon began taking lessons. Over the next few months, newly equipped with an understanding of canvas, paint, and brush, Sims would utilize found and gifted materials to produce her own artworks.

While her bucolic childhood allowed time for Sims to pursue various passions, she was quickly thrust into adult responsibilities as a teenager when she left formal schooling and married. In 1945, Sims and her new husband moved to his hometown of Brewton, Alabama. They lived happily over the next decade, raising six children with family nearby for support. However, when Sims’s husband abruptly left his family and responsibilities behind in the late 1950s, she found herself a single parent without a high school diploma. Steadfast and determined to provide for her family, Sims worked various jobs, which included cleaning homes, sewing clothing, and selling insurance.

The 1960s was a turbulent time in the American South, and as a black woman living in Alabama, Sims faced both prejudice and kindness from her neighbors. In one instance, she was chased away from a voting station by members of the Ku Klux Klan. Later, her children were among the first to attend integrated schools in Brewton. These events inspired Sims to take part in the civil rights movement, and she quickly found her acquired skillsets a major asset to Brewton’s chapter of The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The state of Alabama had deemed the NAACP illegal, therefore Sims had to manage a clandestine operation that allowed for open communication without drawing attention to the organization’s members. Sims remained active in politics even after the 1960s, as she held minor political offices in her county and helped register others to vote.

It would be almost twenty years later before Sims renewed her interest in art making. When her youngest child left for the Job Corps, Sims began attending General Education Development (GED) courses, finally earning her degree in 1978. She pursued nursing and eventually worked in the healthcare sector, but a knee replacement surgery rendered a physically demanding job nearly impossible. Never fearful of a major life change, Sims took this opportunity to enroll in Jefferson Davis Community College in Brewton. There, she took studio art and art history courses, and ventured with her classmates to local museums. Through her college’s field trip program, Sims connected with fellow Alabama artist Mose Tolliver, whose boldly painted wood canvases had recently been exhibited at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. Although she graduated with an associate degree in 1984, Sims’s artistic rebirth had only just begun.

Until her death in 2014, Sims continued to paint—she expanded her materials to include canvas, masonite, mailboxes, and furniture. After her inclusion in the 1994 exhibition Passionate Visions of the American South: Self Taught Artists from 1940 to the Present, which opened at the New Orleans Museum of Art, she achieved national attention for her portrayals of black southern life. Her paintings of seminal moments in African American history have earned her great acclaim, including from the United States Postal Service. In 2005, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, the postal service featured Sims’s painting of peaceful protesters crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.