James Simon has been a carpenter and a stained glass artisan. He worked as a professional violin maker in England for 15 years. When he returned to Pittsburgh after years of globetrotting and opened a studio on Gist Street in Uptown in 2002, Simon turned to sculpture, sometimes dabbling in mosaic art.
As a sculptor, Simon found his true love.
“You can put your life experiences into the work if you choose to,” Simon says. “For me, clay is a wonderful way to express my imagination and tell stories. I like telling my stories through clay.”
Simon's new project is arguably his most intricate and diverse. The Book Art Bench features poetry by Yona Harvey about Pittsburgh native, musician, and composer Mary Lou Williams, and art by painter Luis Castellanos Valui of Guadalajara, Mexico.
“I've had the idea to make a large book for a long time, one way or another, in sculptural form,” says Simon. “My original idea was to make a really large, maybe a 15-foot book that could sit in parks and the content could change every so often … It came to me that everybody wants benches, and I could make it a much smaller book on a sculptural bench, and it would be more affordable.”
Simon is one of the region's most accomplished artists. His most recognized local works, including the Fallen Heroes Memorial in Bloomfield, the Liberty Avenue Musicians, Downtown, and Uptown Rhythm on Duquesne University's campus, are large-scale pieces that command the attention of even the most incurious passersby. His work is also on display in Cleveland, Tampa, and Chattanooga, Tenn.
Wrought from concrete and ceramics, the Book Art Bench is five feet long, four by four feet in height and depth, and weighs about 800 pounds. Funded by McAuley Ministries in celebration of its 10-year anniversary, and in conjunction with the Uptown Partners community group, the bench will initially be placed in a green space at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Gist Street. Frost freeze resistant, the sculpture will be moved to other locations every six months, with new text and art.
Harvey, an assistant professor in the Writing Program at the University of Pittsburgh, selected Williams to revive interest in the composer's career. Williams, who died in 1981, made more than 100 records, served as an arranger for Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman, and socialized and collaborated with Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis.
“I chose Mary Lou Williams because the artist has sparked my curiosity and inspired my work for over twenty years,” says Harvey, whose work includes the poetry collection Hemming the Water and Marvel Comic’s World of Wakanda. “She once lived in East Liberty, Teenie Harris photographed her, and she was a phenomenal composer and pianist. She shattered gender boundaries and false expectations about how a female musician should play. Every aspiring musician or music lover in Pittsburgh will benefit from knowing Williams and her work.”
Simon says the bench meshes his interest in books, literature, and music. For ten years, his studio was the site of the Gist Street Reading Series, curated by Sherrie Flick and Nancy Krygowski.
He was less familiar with Williams' oeuvre but became enthusiastic after Harvey suggested her for the first installation of the Book Art Bench.
“I think it's nice we chose somebody from Pittsburgh who had a really interesting career, an important person in the history of musicians, women, and African Americans and people in Pittsburgh. It's a nice celebration of [Williams], and an education,” says Simon.