Philip Simmons remembered by Mary Edna

Philip Simmons, laid to rest.  Photo by Steve Lepre.

Philip Simmons, laid to rest. Photo by Steve Lepre.

Philip Simmons, whose skill with the hammer and anvil elevated him from a working man to an artisan widely recognized as a national treasure, died Monday night, June 22, 2009. He was 97. The renowned blacksmith passed in his sleep at Bishop Gadsden retirement home, right across the creek from my studio. I rode my bike over to visit sometimes and he came to my studio when he was well.

I went to see Mr. Simmons at his bedside last week and paid my respects. He was very weak but could smile and show love in his eyes. A very important friend to me and my daughters, he prayed for me to have a husband when they were little, thus Dr. Sperry married us.

Our community will miss this gentleman who gave so much to everyone who crossed his path. My band, Lime and the Coconuts, played for a gathering honoring him and his work several months ago and we played jazz and hymns for the celebration of his life at the Gaillard Auditorium. Rossie Colter, at his Foundation, asked me to write about our special relationship which started in 1987 in his office on Blake Street. His home and workshop are now listed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as an endangered site, with his apprentices running the shop.

My first experience with collaboration began in a one on one relationship with master craftsman Philip Simmons. We began meeting in his office early in the mornings pouring over designs and making sketches for a piece of sculpture for the lobby of the Charleston International Airport. Listening to his then-89 year old wisdom brought so many gifts as to how to live life as an artist and human being in a constantly changing world. My daughter Sarah was crawling around his studio floor that he had baby-proofed so we could work. At that time, I had recently suffered a traumatic loss, the sudden death of my three year old son, Daniel, and Mr. Simmons was a true comfort. We started and ended every gathering with prayer. What followed was perseverance.

It was fun to ride a bike around Charleston with my baby girl on back, photographing Mr. Simmons’ gates, fences, balconies and window grilles and learning his creative approach. After looking at every single image we could get our hands on of his ornamental wrought ironwork, we still had no real satisfying image to launch a design. Then I asked him about his inventions that prided him most and he loved his original Magnolia Leaf design. That spurred a garden theme and he pulled out a color photo of a custom door on Hilton Head Island that we had not documented. It had an arch in the frame and, if it were bisected, made a fine design for three dimensions. He suggested lattice for the seats of the Gazebo. Mr. Simmons was excited to move out of the flat plane and wrap the iron around the top of the arches to make the piece more sculptural and show off his unique leaf design and ability. I drew up his contracts and worked with the lawyers and committees to get Mr. Simmons protected as an artist. This was Mayor Riley’s idea.

When we went to install the sixteen foot wide iron sculpture, at first, the airport lawyers said we were responsible if the weight of the tabby base and gazebo was too much and caused structural damage. No way, we said. We were poorly paid artists that could not afford that kind of insurance. After discussion, they had engineers come in to size up the situation. After more letters of who is responsible for liability and lawyers and engineers, we had permission to put the art in place in April of 1989. Hallelujah!

Painted Charleston Green and sitting on a round tabby base, the Gazebo welcomes travelers to our city. It gives a place of rest and a glimpse into the port of arrival. From there, you could look up at my draped silk batik sculpture “Charleston Waterways,” an aerial viewpoint of our marshy environment. The silk drapes echo Mr. Simmons’ arches and organic lines. We said prayers of thanks and felt pride in a permanent location for our individual art forms.

Mr. Simmons taught me a lot about integrity and craftsmanship. He said that it wasn’t about time or money. Life was about doing your best and saying your prayers. He also said you had to get off your knees and work. It was unusual for a white lady to spend so much time in Mr. Simmons’ office and we turned a lot of heads and often had an audience when I finally left the building. We talked about work, religion, race, jazz, family, church, friends, aches and pains, money, children, doctors, death, love… just anything that crossed our minds.

Always present were his apprentices, cousin Joseph “Ronnie” Pringle and nephew Carlton Simmons. They were accustomed to my presence and offered their kind smiles as they toiled in the heat on Mr. Simmons’ projects. Behind the left hand side of the soot-stained shed where the anvil stood, there was storage for scrap parts, and it was always in disarray, whereas the shop was meticulous.

It was rewarding to see pencil lines on graph paper turn into each segment of heated metal. Another source of satisfaction for Mr. Simmons was his tight curls of iron. If you look at the fine welding of his ironwork, you will see why his art is superior to most and that his work will live on forever.

Our next collaboration was for the Charleston Visitor Center’s Gate. This was Mayor Riley’s idea too. We were a team built on mutual trust. Our first three designs were turned down by committee. One was too much about the railroad; one was too New Orleans looking. Mr. Simmons did not want to talk and stand up for his designs so it was my job to demand respect. It is difficult to design by democratic committee! The city architect walked in when I was defending the final design and thought it was beautiful and elegant and very much Charleston. Another answer to prayer and more contracts and lawyers.

Then Hurricane Hugo, which blew away my studio on Hayne Street, sent rising tides through my friend’s iron studio as well. It was September 29, 1989 and the whole city was devastated. Steve Lepre with the Commedia dell’Arte troupe worked in my building and helped drag out the plans and contracts and whatever else was left. In the Dock Street Theater on the second floor, the city gave us rooms to regroup. My assistant Courtney redrew the soiled final design of the gate on papers, sitting on the floor because we had no furniture. The commission was finished on time with incredible graceful braces to hold the gate in place.

Another difficulty arose when it came time for installation. The bricklayers for the pillars to hold the gate said Mr. Simmons’ math was wrong. Well, it wasn’t. I had the plans. The leveled ground had buried the brickwork and they just had to be raised. We had a meeting to prove this at Mr. Simmons’ studio. He wanted me to do the talking. It was raining and about seven well-dressed men huddled to view the plans. Steve Livingston, head of the Charleston Park and Recreation Department at that time, realized that Mr. Simmons knew what he was doing and was not at fault. It took a while to convince the business men gathered to acknowledge the mistake so we could install the mathematically perfect gates on brick pillars built to spec.

Mr. Simmons’ gates are engineering marvels. In the Visitor Center’s Gate, we did not know until after installed that it would not be opened and closed for fear of lawsuits if someone got hurt. That made Mr. Simmons sad. He was proud of the balance of the gate. All that heavy metal would open and close with just a tiny touch of the hand. He wanted the peacock on the top which also felt like waves. He loved his twisted iron and wanted flat rails next to the twisted rails. He thought the side panes and top brace should be fish designs. It takes a lot of thought for drawings of differing elements to become one graceful image. Mr. Simmons was a brilliant man though humble at all times. He could envision the final product in his mind with all of the relative proportions of each unit.

My 18 foot batik on silk “Charleston Coastline,” a framed five panel aerial view of the harbor, was hung early in the Visitor’s Center because Mayor Riley had a group that wanted to see the gate and building. The big old place was fumigated and a number of the bugs decided to crawl into the frames to escape the fumes. The whole piece had to be taken apart and reinstalled bug-less. Mr. Simmons taught me to face adversity with a smile and that the customer is always right, even when they are wrong.

When we were working on the Visitor’s Center, I helped with getting the museum type boxes that give historical information about his work. His iron Palmetto Tree design was also featured. In 1998 then-South Carolina Governor David Beasley presented Mr. Simmons with the Order of the Palmetto, the highest award a South Carolinian can receive. As always, Mr. Simmons quietly accepted the honor with dignity and grace. It was a very special day for him because it is always nice to be recognized where you live and work. Years later I commissioned a Palmetto Tree for my home and it sits on the mantle over the fireplace.

Mr. Simmons gave my daughters, Sarah and Rebecca, their first dollar. We were at the soda fountain at Eckerd drugstore off Highway 17 and sat down with him for a while. The little girls just loved him and he loved us back. Following us out to the parking lot, he asked them if they had ever had a paper dollar bill. Their eyes just bugged out of their heads and they talked a lot before they spent that treasured bill. Mr. Simmons then reminded me that he was still praying for me to get married again to a nice man and I told him to keep that line going. He knew he was responsible for my happy union with Dr. Sperry and we both applauded his diligence in the matter. The girls later went to school at Buist Academy where Mr. Simmons went as a boy. His unique manner of writing the ABC’s in iron are on the school’s archway.

Three heart gates grace the Philips Simmons Garden where we celebrated his birthdays with crowds of admirers at St. John’s Reformed Episcopal Church, where he worshiped. I always came early, planted a kiss and slipped away. In the heat of Spoleto, throngs paused to shake his hand.

There have been many attempts to document Mr. Simmons’ huge body of work, but pieces had slipped through the cracks. My friends Steve Lepre and Mark McKinney of Sunhead Projects were the perfect people to help us find the missing gates. Mr. Simmons was still in his house but getting on in years. Rossie agreed that there was more work to do so we took my van over to pick up Mr. Simmons and just drove around while he recalled commission after commission. We started our remarkable excursion with a camera mounted between the front seats on March 20, 2006, my birthday, and our last tour was Valentine’s Day, 2007. We documented with photographs and video, as he remembered each job and the clients involved. He was only able to eat soup at the time so we lunched at Saffron.

When Mr. Simmons’ anvil went to the Avery Research Center for African-American History and Culture at the College of Charleston, I decided to preserve our history there as well. The drawings and photos of our process were documented by Sunhead Projects, then archived at the Avery. In 1982, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded Mr. Simmons its National Heritage Fellowship, the highest honor the United States can bestow on a traditional artist. I went to Washington, DC to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the award in 2007 when Mr. Simmons was again profiled.

Everywhere Mr. Simmons went folks stopped by to say hello and he always gave his fullest to each person old or young, even when he was not feeling well. Often the tour groups would come by and he would greet everyone with warmth, enjoying sharing his craft and educating people. Sometimes he even invited folks into his home, or sat on the porch. I have always admired the way he loved his public and offered his time willingly.

When my father had cancer, Mr. Simmons was the first to call me and talk about the fear that this disease creates. And we prayed on the phone. I can remember it now, he said, “Mary, that’s bad, that’s really bad.” My Dad recovered and, once again, I appreciated Mr. Simmons’ prayers. Many times I would pray for his ailments as well.

The last time I saw Mr. Simmons, I rubbed his head and sang hymns with Rossie. I told him that my son Daniel would greet him in heaven and climb on his lap. He smiled and we said good-bye. Having good friends is a blessing to cherish.

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One Comment

  1. Posted July 28, 2009 at 10:32 pm | Permalink

    I think its a great work & it certainly will make many realise that how precious their love is. – cool!!!!

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