By Stephanie Case
For Art Sims, Los Angeles is his gallery.
His artwork is frequently plastered about the streets of Southern California: on towering billboards, movie theater facades and Metro bus shelters.
Founder of the Playa del Rey-based graphic design and marketing firm 11:24 Design, Sims is the creative mind behind some of the most iconic film posters in the history of African-American cinema: “School Daze” (1988), “Do the Right Thing” (1989), “Jungle Fever” (1991), “Malcom X” (1992), “Clockers” (1995) and “Black Dynamite” (2009), to name a few.
Sims willfully blurs the line between advertisement and art. He’s as passionate about selling movie tickets as he is about crafting bold visuals that catch your eye from behind the wheel.
“Typically, when someone drives down the street,” looks up from traffic and sees a movie billboard, Sims says, “you’ve only got 10 seconds to grab their attention.”
This spring, Angelenos can steal a longer glance. Sims’ first formal L.A. exhibition of film posters, called “Movies and Messages,” is on long-term display at Culver City’s Mayme A. Clayton Library & Museum.
The museum is a hidden gem of black history, with more than 2 million rare African-American films, photographs and artifacts — making Sims’ work right at home here.
Sims captures a wide range of images of black culture: some beautiful, some quirky, some provocative, and others bursting with exuberant color.
After graduating from art school in Michigan, Sims went straight to Capitol Records, designing sleek album covers for soul singers like the Isley Brothers, Natalie Cole and Minnie Riperton.
Then, when Steven Spielberg asked Sims to design the poster art for “The Color Purple” (1985), he swapped music for movies and never looked back.
“I just get infatuated with ideas for [film art],” Sims gushes. “Sometimes, I design posters in my sleep. I get caught up in wanting to come up with something special.”
With each new movie, he immerses himself in the script, madly sketching poster ideas as he reads each page.
For Gina Prince-Bythewood’s “Love & Basketball,” Sims envisioned two athletes in mesh shorts, locked in a kiss. Each stretched one arm towards the sky; together, they held an orange basketball above their heads, like mistletoe.
For Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” Sims dreamed up a whimsical take on Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. A young girl doodled cop cars and Kente patterns in pastel sidewalk chalk on the city street, the pavement soaked in a bright blue hue.
Next to the girl, Lee — in character as pizza guy Mookie — gazed up at Sims’ deliberately placed bird’s-eye-view camera.
Throughout the next two decades, Lee and Sims became creative allies, taking on more and more daring collaborations.
To promote “Bamboozled” (2000), an acerbic black comedy about a fictional minstrel TV show, Sims drew a black pickaninny cartoon holding a slice of watermelon in a cotton field.
“We were trying to make it as offensive as possible,” Sims says. “Sometimes you have to create images that provoke for people to really get the message.”
For “Malcolm X” (1992), Sims provoked with a single letter — a silver ‘X’ crisscrossed a pitch-black poster.
“The only words were ‘November 19th’” below the ‘X.’ It said nothing else,” he says. “I thought the simplicity was extremely powerful.”
When Sims drives around Los Angeles these days, he’s less inspired by the commercial art he sees.
Many advertisers, instead of designing an original scene, just repurpose a film still, or — even worse, Sims says — resort to clichés, like superimposing the protagonists’ floating heads on a black background.
“Movies and Messages,” meanwhile, is a testament to Sims’ relentless originality. Each of his posters is different from the next, shifting artistic styles from one project to the next.
Whether on a billboard, bus shelter or museum wall, Sims’ art is deeply inventive — worthy of much more than a 10-second glance from a car window.
“Movies And Messages: The Movie Posters & Early Works of Art Sims” remains on display through July 25 at the Mayme A. Clayton Library & Museum, 4130 Overland Ave., Culver City. Call (310) 202-1647 or visit claytonmuseum.org for exhibit hours and more information about the venue.
See more of Sims’ work at 1124design.com