Five Minutes With: Johnnie Simmons, woodburning artist

March 25, 2011 

  • Johnnie Simmons’ work can be seen locally at the Red Piano Too Art Gallery on St. Helena Island.


Johnnie Simmons will buy wood at Walmart or the lumber yard. Maybe he'll pick up a piece of driftwood and take it home to his collection back home near Yemassee. He'll look at it and see faces, animals and scenes from his childhood.

Simmons is a self-taught wood burning artist. With a handheld tool and a palate of vibrant paints, the St. Helena Island native been painting Gullah and Biblical imagery for years. He was one of six South Carolina artists featured on the ETV documentary, "Uncommon Folk," which aired March 10, along with the late Sam Doyle, who was also from St. Helena.

Simmons, who's also a Vietnam War veteran, pastor and retired school bus driver, among other pursuits, talks about how he became an artist.

Question. How did you get into wood burning?

Answer. When I retired, I got into the arts. From there it just went. I went to the VA hospital in Virginia (for post traumatic stress disorder) and saw a piece of rock there that piqued my interest. I cleaned it up and it looked like a lion head or something. So I painted it.

I got into wood by playing around at the lumberyard at Port Republic. I saw a piece of wood that had what I thought was a face in it. I took the knot in the wood and made eyes and nose and face. I called it "Two Knot Head Gullah Man." From there I started with the wood burning.

I finally got a feeling from it and the art started to flow. I've got art all over the place now.

Q. Do you show your work often?

A. I don't show too much. I don't want this to become like a 9 to 5. I have people who call and come over.

Q. What do you paint?

A. I do farm life, fishing life, saltwater life. Island life. Church life. I got back to my childhood. Little pieces from that time in life. Farm life, that's what we did every day. It's a way of life. I go back in my mind. Something that I would want to pass onto someone else. I try to capture it on a piece of wood. That way it'll be there for the next generation.

I'm working on something now that I'd do as a kid. I used to mind birds. We had rice. In the day when the rice is up to a certain height, it would start to blossom. The old folk call it "milk." The grain would be soft. The birds would come by and suck the milk out of the rice before it matured. So we had to shoo the birds. In this picture, I'll put myself on a stump like I used to, so I could watch and mind the birds.

Q. You paint with a lot of bright greens, yellows and reds. Why do you use those colors?

A. That's what people always ask. They ask, "Why you do bright colors?" I say, "I'm doing something to uplift."

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