James Simon: Bringing his
worldly travels back to Pittsburgh with lively artworks:
By Allie Wynands
Point Park News Service
James Simon takes a sip of his sweet orange tea and places his
mug back into a cereal bowl functioning as a makeshift coaster.
The native Pittsburgh artist then offers a metaphor for his life
by retrieving a primitive sculpture made when he was 15 -
"Motorcycle Man," a swirly black and white ceramic man wearing
safety goggles, riding a motorcycle decorated with peace signs.
Sweet orange tea steeps within a ceramic mug James Simon made,
sitting atop his coffee table. Photo by Allie Wynands.
The sculpture, about as large as piggy bank, may have been
inspired by the popular movie of that time, Easy Rider, Simon said,
but looking at it now - he believes it's a symbol for his passion
of traveling and creating art. The motorcycle man is cruising along
a hot, Australian asphalt road, ready to take on the world.
It represents Simon's lifelong burning desire to "split" after
high school, to go out and experience what the world had to offer
him and his artwork.
"It's one of my favorite sculptures ever made," said the
58-year-old artist, who has lived in his cozy Gist Street studio in
Uptown for the last 12 years and has built a career on creating
small and large-scale sculptures and murals in cities from
Pittsburgh to Cleveland.
'Motorcycle Man,' James Simon's first sculpture - made at age 15
in ceramics class at Peabody High School. Ceramic. Photo by Allie
Simon, grew up in Stanton Heights and developed his knack for
art, starting with the creation of "Motorcycle Man" in Mr. Ed
Kosewicz's ceramics class at Peabody High School in East
"Mr. K," as the students called him, got Simon started and
excited about creating in clay.
"He was a great artist who was never embraced by the 60's art
scene, his work was full of imagination and humor," Simon said.
One of Kosewicz' welded metal sculptures is a towering, lanky
juggler with limbs spread to seemingly right angles, and balls
affixed in the air through a thin metal orb.
Mr. K's class was one of the few classes Simon said he remembers
enjoying because the teacher taught in a way that allowed the
students independence and creative flexibility.
"It was kind of my own natural instincts to create stuff from
what was getting me excited about what was going on. When I
traveled, everything I saw got me excited about something," Simon
Been All Around the World
"Traveling was the beginning of a particular education for me,"
Simon said. "I wasn't 'school-material' and had a strong desire to
see what was going on in the world."
"My first big hitchhiking trip was when I was 15, me and my
buddy decided we were sick of high school and took off two weeks
and hitchhiked to Florida," he recalled.
Once they returned to Pittsburgh, Simon graduated high school
because he felt as if he owed it to his parents. But as soon as he
had his diploma, he left town again, this time hitchhiking out to
Berkley, Calif., with his buddy, Barry.
"His sister was living in a hippie commune of 30 people," Simon
said. "We arrived there at midnight, six or seven days later, and
Mary Creps (a friend of Barry's sister) answered the door totally
Along with Creps, many experiences with women throughout Simon's
life find their way into his artwork - including an Italian woman
he fell in love with during his travels in Australia.
Glimpses of these women are reflected in a series of flowerpot
sculptures Simon created that range from shapely profiles of faces,
draping hair, and necklines. Several flowerpots have round breasts
- reminiscent of the oranges the Italian woman and Simon once sold
- as the base for the pot where the shoulders should be, with
flowers popping out of the lady's head.
After a couple years of hitchhiking the states, Simon left in
'74 to live on a Kibbutz in Israel. Simon, who is Jewish but not
practicing, only traveled to Israel because he says it was where
all the nice Jewish boys and girls went when they left the country.
Yet while there, Simon recalled meeting Bedouin Arabs who were
"living an ancient lifestyle they seemed like they've been living
for years and years."
Many times Simon turns heads and torsos into irregularities
similar to an Arab's 'kifiyya' (head cloth) and draping robes.
A sculpture within James Simon' studio apartment, made by James
Simon. Photo by Allie Wynands.
Simon's work draws people in very abstract ways - they do not
feel like a single person of just one culture, lifestyle or
nationality. Instead, the people he draws are a mixture of every
culture and every walk of life - a mixture of Middle Eastern,
European, Spanish, African, Indian, Chinese - making them extremely
relatable to the viewer.
From Israel, Simon traveled through Istanbul and across the
Middle East to India. He soon ended up in Thailand right after the
Vietnam War had ended.
"Bangkok was basically just a big prostitution city for the
soldiers," he recounts.
Witnessing such dismal things like the sex trade in Thailand is
part of the social injustice and poverty that Simon aims to steer
upwards and away from - especially with his large mosaics and
For instance with Simon's "Welcome to Braddock" sign, bright
colors from the entire spectrum inspire hope for the future of the
town that collapsed with the steel industry and the cocaine
epidemic in the '80s.
By working side by side with the Braddock Youth Project (BYP) on
art installments, he is sending a positive message to the town's
youth and future that art can inspire optimism, hope and change.
The youth helped place the piece with tiles and mirrors.
"The youth have thoroughly enjoyed helping bring his creations
to life…and find a continued sense of pride in seeing these
artworks they helped create as bringing beauty to their
neighborhood," said Jessica Schmid, BYP program coordinator.
International Experiences Brought Home
While traveling, Simon also spent time in Guatemala and Mexico
where he was deeply inspired by the country's sense of humor.
"People laugh a lot in Mexico…they celebrate every time they
can," he said.
Simon's compares his artwork to this vibe - as "not serious and
heavy," but meant to be celebrated. He finds Mexico to be a
surreal, delightful country and a healthy environment to know.
Simon remembers the Day of The Dead, a traditional Mexican
holiday where they honor deceased friends and family members with
private alters, food and drink.
"The Day of the Dead is a great example of how they appreciate
their dead, remember their dead, and have a great sense of humor
about it all," he said, adding that the people were very warm, the
music half-drunk and "everything seeming as if it's not going to
work but it does."
"Sculpture and paintings are a large part of their culture," he
James Simon works on the "Welcome to Troy Hill Sign" in his
studio. Tile and glass mosaic. Photo by Allie Wynands.
Elements like jungle animals and musical instruments within
Simon's work are reminiscent of Mexican street murals. For example,
his "Welcome to Uptown" sign depicts a life-size tree with animals
(rooster, penguin, ladybug, pelican, locust) sitting in the leaves
made from mirrors and mosaic tile.
From Mexico, The Aztecs and Mayans' style of drawing also
strongly influences his own technique - a mesh of traditionalism
and expressionism with lots of loose, curly lines. Simon creates
human faces in a similar way to how the Aztecs and Mayans did -
long, broad noses and teardrop-shaped eyes, mixed with his own
While in England, Simon befriended the "great Hungarian virtuoso
violin teacher" Kato Havas, who introduced him to "a world of
European history of culture, particularly of gypsies and their
magic with music."
Many of Simon's early sculptures include exotic women and men
with instruments like guitars and cellos in place of their torso,
which are directly inspired by his subjection to the
Traveling to different countries, Simon got by on little to no
"I worked odd jobs like fruit picking, construction, and
dishwashing - which for some reason I especially loved," he said.
"I tried to pick places it was really cheap to travel…in
Afghanistan it was 10 cents for a hotel or a meal."
One may describe this lifestyle as that of a "starving artist,"
but Simon said he liked it that way. He believes it made his
experiences more authentic, and the culture more accessible.
For example, in Manchester, England, Simon apprenticed building
violins with violinmaker, David Vernon and in Oxford - Master
Luthier Andrew Dipper.
"I fell in love with the musical instrument making world," Simon
In Italy, he became friends with Mexican violinmaker, Alvero
Escalante, who invited Simon to his hometown of Tepoztlán, Mexico,
where he set up a studio and made violins that he later sold in the
James Simon works on the "Welcome to Troy Hill Sign" in his
studio. Tile and glass mosaic. Photo by Allie Wynands.
Music In His Mind
The majority of Simon's sculptures - regardless of size - have a
musical instrument as a focal point and many times it is a violin
or cello. Other times it is a trumpet, guitar or accordion.
One tabletop ceramic sculpture is of a European man dressed in a
shapely tuxedo with a red and green bow-tie, stretching a violin
and bow above his head. Another sculpture, standing about two feet
tall, is of a man's head popping out of a French horn and wearing a
toupee, with a square for one ear and a circle for the other.
Nancy Chubb, who moved to Pittsburgh from Virginia a few years
ago, thinks that Simon's artwork is "bigger than life, and also all
"(T)he liveliness of life and people and coming together…to make
music, to meet neighbors, to create celebrations. It is messy,
playful, rough around the edges…it has a message and it makes me
smile," Chubb said.
Simon believes humor is an important quality in artwork.
"It's often missing in art," he said. "Art can be so
A very well known piece of Simon's artwork in Pittsburgh is The
Liberty Ave Musicians (947 Liberty Ave.), a 15-foot tall musician
trio with guitar, accordion and trumpet. The sculpture is largely
influenced by the multi-cultural music Simon was exposed to while
traveling in Brazil, Greece and Mexico.
It is joyful and humorous how the giant musicians loom over an
outside seating area of Pittsburgh Press Deli - viewers are forced
to tilt their head up to gawk at the men, one wearing a cowboy hat,
another sporting a sideways baseball cap and the other a newspaper
boy hat. When the viewer's gaze is centered, they notice a
sculpture of a dog lounging by the sculpture's feet in the
Art Brightens and Enlightens
Uptown Rhythm (located on the Forbes Avenue parking garage wall
on Duquesne University) is a 25-foot relief sculpture that
colorfully merges music, sports, animals and people from all walks
of life against a background of building tops. Another popular work
of Simon's is the Fallen Heroes Memorial (located in Bloomfield)
that commemorates three slain police officers in 2009 and features
a concrete sculpture of Saint Michael standing on a three-tiered
mosaic platform. The sculpture of Saint Michael stands angelically
above a memorial with photographs of the officers.
The "Welcome To Braddock Sign" located on Braddock Ave was
created by James Simon in coordination with AmeriCorps Braddock
Youth Project. 10′ x 10′. Tile and glass mosaic with cement dog.
Photo by Allie Wynands.
Simon is currently finishing work in his studio on a "Welcome to
Troy Hill" mosaic sign.
Like his other large-scale mosaics, it is engaging to the eyes -
vibrant, popping, and energetic. The scene depicts neighborhood
building-tops of all shapes and sizes, and looming above are bright
blue pearl flowers to resemble those that grow throughout Troy
By looking at his artwork it's clear that Simon intends for good
feelings like joy and humor to be felt. In his art, people are
always portrayed as smiling, and because his drawing technique is
rhythmic and free flowing, it is very engaging to behold.
Braddock Mayor Jon Fetterman worked closely with Simon and
AmeriCorps on art projects for the city of Braddock - one being the
"Welcome to Braddock" sign, a mosaic that stands tall along
Braddock Avenue and infuses vibrant, blossoming flowers with
musical instruments and glitter amphibians.
"James is a great friend and has made a lot of important
contributions to the community…He works beautifully with our young
people," said Fetterman. "It's rare when you have an artist that's
so approachable, talented and down to earth."
To learn more about James Simon, his past installments and
present art projects, visit: http://www.simonsculpture.com/