Between Allegory and Issue

Words are hard to find when you find yourself in the presence of an artist who isn’t simply evolving their language, but who is actively leveling up. Traci Mims is an artist who seems to be in the midst of a transformation so profound, it could redefine her aesthetic, and her career. The temptation is to stack adjectives; instead I’ll try to stack context.

Mims teaches art at Ribault High School and has been making art her entire life. She has a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Florida A&M, and an MFA in printmaking from Tyler School of Art, Temple University. Her dedication and deliberate choices are showcased in meticulous paintings, quilts, prints and drawings that highlight the African-American experience. Nuanced and detailed, there is a satisfying Mannerist-meets-Surrealist quality to her works.

Today, though, her drawings are the creations catching fire. I first saw two of her large-scale (approximately 8 feet by 4 feet), drawings at Ritz Theatre’s 2018 Through Our Eyes show, Journey to South Africa: A Cultural Exchange. The diptych, Blessed Be The Fruit (pictured) while recalling her paintings, takes a leap down a road paved with a monochromatic palette and details that reveal themselves only with extended examination. Indeed, as museum administrator Adonnica Toler and I looked at them (again), we noticed that the gilded halo that rings each figure’s head is itself bounded, by rope.

In this use of multiple layers of information, her drawings recall Radcliffe Bailey, whose assemblages and sculptures reveal their layers of meaning only with extended viewing. Yet unlike Bailey’s, Mims’ drawings seem to hint at something like Magical Realism as well. Blessed features Muhammad Ali and Nelson Mandela in a boxing stance, but peppered through their torsos are faces and details of historical people and events … as if these fighters (in the literal and historic sense of the terms) carry with them the injuries and victories of those who came before. Of her choice to work in pencil with gilding, the artist says, “I wanted the work itself to come forward … I can play with color all day, but that’s going to undermine the power of the message I might have.”

The drawings, which feel so incredibly current—not simply for Jacksonville, but within the realm of contemporary art—were born of necessity: In 2016, the artist had an accident that left her with severe back injuries which make building canvases and working with wood cuts prohibitive. “Paper is light; I can roll it up, I can put in on my desk and sit here and draw. So I tried to look for ways that I could do pieces with that same visual impact that wouldn’t have me laid up forever.”

Upon entering Mims’ home, it’s clear that art is at the absolute center of her life. From her bedroom to the living room, there are multiple work areas and artworks are everywhere. The St. Petersburg native has begun to work on getting her art seen beyond a Jacksonville audience. And the wider world is taking notice. Earlier this year, the artist participated in a print-exchange at Sanchez Art Center in Pacifica, California; currently she has works in Sextet at the Limner Gallery in Hudson, New York; she’s working on pieces for a solo show at the Foundry Art Centre in St. Charles, Missouri in January 2019. The aforementioned diptych was the first piece to be selected by the delegation from South Africa to show in the artistic cultural exchange between Jacksonville’s Ritz Theatre and Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality of Port Elizabeth. “[The ZA delegation was] in awe of Blessed be the Fruit for its attention to detail and how Mims intricately incorporated the lives of apartheid and Civil Rights martyrs and heroes. Pairing Mandela and Ali in this diptych showed the depth of her research,” notes Toler.

In her studio, Mims has two drawings pinned to the wall. One is a heroic, but mysterious figure: Sojourner Truth. Positioned centrally, her form rises, like a holy mountain—a person doubling as a place of reverence. The second in-progress piece “is kind of a two-fold thing, related to our history and weight [as in making weight],” says Mims, as we look at the drawing just beginning to emerge. It’s a woman (she referenced herself for the face) wearing an elaborate cotton dress. Throughout the image, Mims plans to use literal and figurative references to the crop that was a boon and a relentless burden to so many.

Of these drawings, the artist says, “I’ve been focusing on historical themes as well as contemporary issues. I kind of tend to linger between cultural allegory and social issues … that’s where I am right now.”

Writing for The Guardian, Jonathan Jones referred to Mannerism as “poetic spaces, melancholy architectural self-portraits,” and it would be a difficult task to better sum up Mims’ current works. Though often gathering notions from historically significant people, she also uses herself as a model. In so doing, she layers her own story, subtly and deftly, throughout.