November 16, 2006
In the 1998 Anna Packwood’s family and friends came from across continents to celebrate her 100th birthday. This was the culmination of research on the Positive Presence of Absence: a history of the African Canadian community through works in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada. I can honestly say that of the ten years working at the NGC, this impromptu gathering — which almost did not happen because of security concerns over the large numbers and the last-minute arrangements — this was the high point of a decade of work there. The National Gallery of Canada now presents six images in their African Canadian section which the portrait bust of Tommy Simmons on their educational web site entitled Cybermuse.
One of the catalysts for my research in the early 1990s was a conversation with Fritz Benjamin, a Haitian-Canadian who was working at that time as a security guard. He asked me who Tommy Simmons was, the man portrayed in the larger than life bronze bust prominently displayed in the water court. I didn’t know but once I started looking there were more questions about more works of art. After sharing my interests with Mairuth Sarsfield, author of No Crystal Stairs and her sister Lucille Vaughan-Cuevas they became my mentors. Lucille in particular spent hours with me clarifying histories. I eventually met other members of the Montreal community and wove various fragments together so I could present this walking tour to friends, then to fellow graduate students and finally to the public. It was a personal project that the Gallery promoted from 1995-1997 when they advertised it and offered it as a contract tour.
The image is my first experiment in using Adobe Photoshop to create transparent .png images. I needed to learn .png for my new Google Earth community.
The Adobe Photoshop layers include Anna Packwood on the lower left, with a bronze of her daughter, Lucille Vaughan, an activist, educator and librarian. Beside them is Dr. Carrie Best, pioneer Nova Scotia journalist, activist and author. To the right of the water court is Jennifer Hodge Sarsfield, Anna Packwood’s granddaughter ,a pioneer in Canadian film narratology and beside her is the cover of Mairuth Sarsfield’s book entitled No Crystal Stairs, which was on the short list for Canada Reads filmmaker. A photograph taken in that part of Montreal Mairuth called ‘burgundy city’ shows Mairuth, Susan and Lucille, Anna Packwoods, daughters in the 1940? The collage of the family and friends from across the States, Canada and the Caribbean wasn’t large enough to include them all.
I wrote this in a May 3, 1998 thank you note to NGC Education Division Director, Mary Ellen Herbert, CC: Judith Parker, Mairuth Sarsfield.
After the luncheon celebration with Anne Packwood, about fifty of the invited guests came to the NGC. It was larger than anticipated but it was a huge success. Among the guests were Dr. Carrie Best, OC., Lucille Vaughan-Cuevas, Dominique Sarsfield, numerous friends of Anne Packwood from many different parts of Canada from Edmonton, Dartmouth, and of course, Montreal. There were guests from the United States and from Bermuda. The group included four or five elderly people in wheelchairs, a baby in a carriage, children of all ages. After a warm greeting under the Water Court we went to the Seminar Room. I showed about a dozen slides of the Picasso exhibition and a few of Orson Wheeler’s sculptures: Tommy Simmons and Lucille Vaughan-Cuevas. The group applauded warmly when they saw the bust of Lucille. Then we went to the Water Court to see Tommy Simmons. The discussion there is something I wish I had on tape. Many at first did not recognize the model by name or by the sculpted bust. But as we talked more and more people remembered something about him. One woman had babysat his children. Another played on teams that competed with his. Another told me of a Wheeler sculpture of an African Canadian model once owned by David? States. An artist from Detroit was excited by what could be done in galleries and plans on following up when she gets home. I invited Lucille to speak about her experience as Wheeler’s model for the 1950′s bust. It was captivating listening to her describe Wheeler’s special qualities as educator and artist. She had been particularly touched by his openness to Black history at that time. This experience was a highlight for me in my years at the NGC.
In the 1920’s awareness of black culture spread from Harlem in New York across the continent and the ocean. During this Renaissance African American arts and literature reached new pinnacles of celebrity. Marcus Garvey, Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong inspired Canadians. Visual artists in Canada attempted to reverse negative stereotypes of black subjects. This sculpture of Tommy Simmons, which celebrates both his blackness and his individuality, gave the emerging artist Orson Wheeler a sense of accomplishment. Simmons was a Montreal sleeping car porter for forty-three years. Work conditions were difficult. The transcontinental trips meant days away from home. Severe employment limitations were placed on black workers. Many, including those with higher education, even doctors and lawyers, were obliged to become porters. Sleeping car porters became the economic elite and catalysts of change in African Canadian communities. Tommy Simmons was a dedicated coach of winning teams. His integrated baseball teams which included girls of African, French and Italian descent, were unprecedented in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Because he was bilingual he entered tournaments in French and English communities from Chicoutimi, Québec to St. John, N.B. [Interviews with Carl Simmons and B. Jones, 1995]