Goleta resident Tonia Shimin creates book honoring her father, Symeon Shimin
Symeon Shimin relied on his paintbrush to speak out against child labor.
That’s evident in “Contemporary Justice and the Child,” his mural at the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. The tempera on canvas work was commissioned in 1936-40 by the Public Works of Art Project and showed both the cruelty of child labor and the intellectual talents of women and people of color.
“It was a powerful statement when it was made,” his daughter, Tonia Shimin, told the News-Press recently at her Goleta home.
.”He was asked by certain authorities to not put in people of color, but he did, in educated roles,” Ms. Shimin, 77, said. “They were women and people of color learning and executing jobs with high intelligence.”
The mural shows a woman looking through a microscope and young black men clearly showing an interest in science. It also commented on the impact left by the Great Depression with people sleeping on the streets, and the mural’s central, dominant figures are a mother and her child.
Mr. Shimin (1902-1984) spoke out against social injustice in elaborate paintings, captured movement in images of dancers and brought magic in illustrations in children’s books.
The New York City artist said a lot in both his detailed works and simpler, figurative paintings in which he made every line count. An example of that is his 1979 oil on canvas, “Clasped Hands.”
His daughter wants to make sure the world remembers the power of his art.
So Ms. Shimin became the editor and curator of “The Art of Symeon Shimin” (Mercury Press International, $40).
The book was released on Nov. 1, which would have been Mr. Shimin’s 117th birthday. It contains many images of his paintings as well as an autobiographical article by Mr. Shimin and essays by Santa Barbara writers Josef Woodard and Charles Donelan.
Ms. Shimin will sign copies at 7 p.m. Feb. 6 at Chaucer’s Books on upper State Street. The book is also available at Tecolote Book Shop in Montecito and www.amazon.com.
“I’ve been dying to do this book for 30 years,” said Ms. Shimin, 77, a retired UCSB professor of modern dance.
“After my father’s death in 1984, I found a treasure trove of slides and photographs of fine art paintings that were spread in collections around the world,” she said. “I felt these works of a master artist should not disappear and be lost.
“Thus began my dream of creating this book and preserving his legacy,” she said.
Ms. Shimin said her father’s art reflected his love and care for humanity.
“He loved all kinds of people. He got along with all kinds of people. And he really cared,” she said. “He was an incredibly kind, open, humanistic-type of man.
“He had a tremendous generosity of spirit,” Ms. Shimin said.
Mr. Shimin was born in 1902 in Astrakhan, Russia. That’s where he saw social injustice that later influenced his art, scenes such as people being dragged to Siberia in chains, Ms. Shimin said. “He saw poverty.”
Mr. Shimin and his family immigrated to the U.S. in 1912.
At age 10, Mr. Shimin worked in his father’s delicatessen in Brooklyn and bore a sense of responsibility for his family.
“If you read the autobiography (in the book), there’s definitely a sense that he grew up too fast,” Ms. Shimin said.
She said she and her sister, Toby Shimin, believe their father’s work as an illustrator of children’s books for 30 years brought back his love of childhood.
Tonia Shimin said that at age 12, her father told his parents he wanted to become a musician. But his mother and father rejected the idea after his uncle, a discouraged violinist, objected to the family having another failing musician.
At the time, Mr. Shimin wasn’t aware of the free music classes at New York City centers. But he found another artistic means of expression.
“He started to draw shortly after that,” Ms. Shimin said. “The amazing thing is he drew as an adult. He didn’t draw pictures that looked like children’s pictures.
“In reality, he drew the people around him,” Ms. Shimin said. “And I think he was drawn to people right away.”
As Mr. Shimin developed his artistic skills, he absorbed the arts around him with trips to museums, dance performances and concerts. He loved jazz and liked to play classical music while he painted.
That connection to music helped to define how Mr. Shimin saw his art.
“He felt his large paintings, such as ‘The Pack,’ were like a large symphony, and his other works were more like concertos or piano solo pieces,” Ms. Shimin said.
When he was 16, Mr. Shimin became an apprentice to a commercial artist to help support his family and attended night classes at Cooper Union Art School.
When he was 27, Mr. Shimin was commissioned to do a cover for Vanity Fair. The art deco painting, which shows the energy of a dancer, is displayed on a living room wall at Ms. Shimin’s home. Both the Vanity Fair cover and a 1929 preliminary watercolor appear in the new book.
“I think the design is exquisite. What’s interesting is the placement of the body is perfectly aligned,” said Ms. Shimin, a New York City native who studied from 1958 to 1962 at the Royal Ballet School in London. Afterward, she worked professionally in modern dance.
Her father’s more elaborate paintings, such as the movie posters he created for “Gone with the Wind” (1940) and “Solomon and Sheba” (1959), have a Renaissance feel with attention to realism, detail, light and darkness.
“He spent time in France, Italy and Mexico, and he studied (the masters’) paintings,” Ms. Shimin said. “He was primarily self-taught.”
In his essay in the book, Mr. Woodard noted Mr. Shimin embodied the values of his favorite painters, which included Pablo Picasso and Francisco de Zurbaran, both of Spain; Vincent van Gogh of The Netherlands; and El Greco of Greece.
As his art career grew, Mr. Shimin’s love for music remained. It’s evident in his 1956-60 oil on canvas, “Group with Woman and Cellist,” which is on the cover of “The Art of Symeon Shimin.” It shows attentive listeners around a musician.
Mr. Shimin’s concern for social justice was reflected in “The Pack,” a 1959 oil on canvas that features figures with hyena heads.
Ms. Shimin said the work reflects her father’s feelings about violence after a real-life experience.
“He was with friends on a party on New Year’s Eve when they came upon a gang beating someone up,” Ms. Shimin said. “He and his friends tried to go and help the person who was being hurt.
“They in turn were beaten up pretty badly,” she said.
Her father survived the incident without any broken bones.
“He really was so much for justice and human rights throughout his whole life that this was a complete affront to him to have anybody beaten up,” Ms. Shimin said.
“People say the painting is very beautiful, which is interesting because it’s such a horrific subject,” Ms. Shimin said. “It’s about a pack of people, about the inhumanity of man, the worst animalistic sides of man.
“I think people are struck by the power of the statement and the designs, the energy,” she said.
Mr. Shimin created other powerful art in illustrations that moved with drama and life in 50 children’s books such as “One Small Blue Bead” by Madeleine L’Engle (1964) and “Joseph and Koza or the Sacrifice of the Vistula” by Isaac Bashevis Singer (1970).
Mr. Shimin also demonstrated how he could be expressive with the just right amount of essential details. You can see his love for his daughter, Toby, in his 1981 oil portrait of her.
“His art is so full of expression,” Tonia Shimin said.
Ms. Shimin said she would love to hold an exhibit of her father’s works if she could get funding and a gallery. She noted a small exhibit could be possible, if the financing became available, of the six paintings she has at her home.
For now, Ms. Shimin, who lives with her husband Steven Eakin and has a son, Shamus Miguel Donlon, from a previous marriage, is glad to publish a book that brings awareness of her father’s powerful art.