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Brush with glory

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The Rev. Henry Simmons of the St. Albans Congregational Church has been inspiring his congregants for years from behind the pulpit, and he strives to do the same when he’s in front of his easel.

Inside the church’s third-floor office at the Robert Ross Johnson Family Life Center at 172-17 Linden Blvd. which is next door to the church, are dozens of works by Simmons, 62, ranging from oil paintings of Fredrick Douglass and Nelson Mandela to sketches of African children and landscapes.

Simmons, who has been pastor of the church for 20 years, said the collection is a reflection of his beliefs and serves as a great way to enlighten his congregation.

“Part of it has to do with what creative gifts we have,” he said about his love for art. “To be a whole person, one needs to draw on their creative gifts.”

The pastor’s talent developed at an early age and ran deep in his family. The North Carolina native said his siblings and parents loved making art and two of his brothers went on to get degrees in art.

“All of us had this gift for drawing and painting,” he said.

Simmons started with watercolors when he was 10 and continued to develop his skills, but took some time off. He said he looked up to many black artists when he was growing up, including Romare Bearden and Aaron Douglas. But when he decided to commit to his calling with the church, Simmons had to put art on the back burner.

He said his strict work schedule and travel to other churches around the world did not leave him time to pick up a brush.

But that changed when he moved to St. Albans 20 years ago. Simmons was inspired by artwork on display at the Family Life Center that showed African and Caribbean history and culture.

“I was amazed that the Family Life Center was conceptualized to bring culture here,” he said.

Simmons began to add his mark to the center and started what would become a collection of 70 pieces of artwork. The pastor said that getting back to the canvas actually made him a better minister as well.

“In art, you are doing portraits and you have to have a sense of what emotions the subject is going through,” he explained. “Art helps me stay in touch with the emotional side of people.”

Simmons took a deep look into his own emotions during a four-month sabbatical in 2007, but that did not stop him from pursuing his art. In fact, he created 44 works in oil, acrylic and watercolors during this period and he considers them some of his best work.

The pastor said the paintings of his idols, such as Douglass, and African landscapes reflect his pride in his culture and history.

“I want to send a message of pride and hope,” he said.

The father of one and grandfather of two said his friends and family are proud of his pieces and are excited every time he starts a new project. The 1,200 members of the church are also energized by his art, according to Simmons.

“They are amazed: one, that I have the ability, and two, that I find the time to do it,” he said.

Simmons engages his congregants not only with the art display at the Family Life Center, but also with art classes he has instituted at the church. His “Religion and the Arts” program has created dozens of new artists, he said, and produced such creations as a mural on the third floor of the Family Life Center that depicts Martin Luther King Jr. and a boy meditating in thoughtful prayer.

“I want them to enjoy the colors and have a spiritual growth and development,” Simmons said of his art students.

Simmons is currently hard at work on another project for a planned March 26 celebration of his 20th anniversary at the church. He said the piece would be made as a thank-you to his members for their work in enhancing his spirituality.

“I don’t do anything for commercial interest. I do it for love,” he said.

Reach reporter Ivan Pereira by e-mail at ipereira@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4546.

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