Controversial painter is accountant in disguise

Artist/accountant is at home with dual identity

Painter/accountant is comfortable with his dual identity

By Linda B. Hirsh

Courant Correspondent

The teenagers in "Girls on the Beach" tilt their chins to the sun.

In the painting, now on exhibit at the University of Connecticut library in Storrs, it is easy to imagine the girls chatting about their dates and other matters dear to the hearts of 16-year-olds.

"It is a flowering time of life," said the artist, Marc Simmons, 45, who lives in Hartford's West End.

Simmons-who wrote poetry before becoming an artist -- said he intended the painting as a celebration of adolescence.

Others didn't see it that way.

He had selected the painting to hang in a show last November at the Connecticut Workers' Compensation Commission, figuring it might bring a sense of warmth and fresh air into the office.  But the commission removed the painting from the show, saying, after complaints by some workers, it was demeaning to women and inappropriate for a public office.

Simmons, an accountant at the University of Connecticut Health Center who once attended a Buddhist college in Colorado, was not fazed by the controversy.

One month later, Real Art Ways snapped up the censored work for a one-person show.  And five months later, some Simmons paintings are being shown at the university's Homer Babbidge Library.  The exhibit will run until May 19.

Real Art Ways showed Simmons' work because "it is part of our mission to speak up for artists and their rights," said Executive Director Will Wilkins. "And he was treated badly."

During the RAW show, the gallery sponsored a discussion of the artwork.  Wilkins said some couldn't imagine why it has created such  a fuss. Others, he said, could.  But no one was offended by it.

Wilkins called Simmons' work "heartfelt."

Deborah Simmons, who is not related to Marc, saw the show at Real Art Ways. "He combines detail and color unlike any artist I've seen," said Simmons, a Manchester Community-Technical College music professor and fabric artist.

Not every painting by Simmons, an untrained artist, is set on the beach.  But all are sunny with an inner light.

Each work on exhibit at the library is filled with patterns of doilies, lace wallpaper and fabric.  some have layers of color that add to their glow.  Some have layers of humor that arise from their content.

As Simmons' wife, Shirley, said: "Its happy art to live with."

Among others who have appreciated the quality are Lawrence Tisch, former chief executive of CBS, who owns one of Simmons' works, [Byzantine Bouquet" ] and the Frank J Miele Gallery in New York City, which specializes in the work of self-taught artists and carries his work.

Also fans of Simmons were the judges at the 16th annual Faber Birren National Color Award Show, in Stamford, who gave him a $1,000 prize last November - around the time the commission asked him to remove his paintings from their premises.

It seems the controversy has followed the painting.

The 48 by 96 inch acrylic, painted in 1989, shows the girls seated on a boardwalk on the sand.  all but two face the sun.  All but one wear shades.

The girls are painted flat as paper dolls.  A stiff black outline defines their bodies.  They seem to float.  In effect, they are as unearthly as the figures on religious medieval manuscripts.

Yet recently at the library, Michael Leonard did a double take when he saw the painting.  The University Coop bookseller remembered the controversy and decided the painting was "sexy."

Leonard couldn't pinpoint why.  Maybe it was the way the girls soak up the sunshine.  Maybe it was the sand dunes behind them, the only part of the painting that undulates.

But the painting did not disturb him .  "It was foolish [for the commission] to take it down," he said.  "They were being overly sensitive.  Everyone is always up in arms about art."

Simmons' has not let the controversy stop him.  In fact, not much stops him from painting.  When doctors diagnosed his son Bill with AIDS, he and his wife took a course at the Red Cross on AIDS in the workplace.  Then, while nursing Bill at home until he died, Simmons conducted a course at the UConn Health Center on the subject - and kept on painting.

"Each painting is a discovery, a work in progress in which I figure out what to do next," he said.

Simmons, who grew up in Miami, explained how he arrived at the odd mix of his avocation and accounting.  Just before he graduated from high school in 1969, his father warned him that he'd better think of a way to support himself.

The choices were medicine, law or accounting.  He went to Miami's Florida International University and then set up his firm, The Balanced Dream, in Boulder, Colo., where he met his wife.  He crunched numbers for health food stores and small businesses.  In 1985, he and his family moved to Connecticut for a job relocation.

Although poetry was his muse, Simmons' mind manifest itself in art through his love of consistent detail.  He even insists on talking about his paintings in chronological order.

His first painting, "The Accountant: Picture Essays in Multiplicity," sums up his work experience.  One day in 1979, he was doing accounts receivable in a hardware store when he started doodling on bookkeeping ledgers. He copied the doodles with a poem he had written about being an accountant.  One line reads: "The drams are like part of us longing for the numbness, the numbness".

That was the day he stopped writing.  Of his switch from poetry to painting, he said, "Words did not do enough for me.  But color had me hooked."

The idea for his first big canvas the 72 by 48 inch "Gilbert's Bar Mitzvah, 1987," came from an old black-and-white photograph of his grandparents, Marty and Flo, father Dick and his uncle Gilbert taken in Brooklyn in the 1930's.

He said the photograph sparked his imagination because it looked like Marty had goosed Flo just before the camera clicked --an act in character for his family.

Simmons' sources are mostly photographs: his own, his family's and the media's.  He also draws on Hindu myths and biblical themes, such as The Last Supper.

For a long time, Simmons kept his commitment to painting a secret.  He worried that people would see him as a "flake," not a good reputation for someone who works with numbers.  Then he volunteered to become head of the art committee at the health c enter, and the bosses found out.

Now the more Simmons paints, the more comfortable he is with his dual identity.  He said it has even helped him become more creative at work.

As Wilkins said of him, "It's admirable when someone pursues their artistic muse."

"Odyssey of a Self-Taught Artist:  Paintings by Marc Simmons," is on display at the Homer Babbidge Library, University of Connecticut, Storrs, through May 19.  For information please call (860) 486-2219 or (860) 486-4637.