- The Washington Times - Friday, September 5, 2003

Banker Russell Simmons leads a double life. By day he is senior vice president for business and community development at Riggs Bank, but nights and weekends, he is content inside his Michigan Park home in Northeast surrounded by paints, rollers, rags and large canvases and engaged in his passion — painting.

During an unexpected give-and-take exchange about community development a few years ago, this prominent local banker shared his little-known passion with an astute art gallery owner.

“Painting has been a real passion for me — it’s been something that I could completely lose myself in — and, it’s so different from what I do every day,” says Mr. Simmons, a native Washingtonian who grew up in Anacostia.

What he does every day for Riggs Bank is help to restore blighted neighborhoods to their former grandeur and partner with city agencies to improve the lives of underserved residents. Painting provides the balance in his life.

“Painting is a very large part of my life, and it allows me to be creative. This really satisfies my creative urges … and provides balance in my life,” says Mr. Simmons, who has been painting since he was a student at Howard University.

While art majors at Howard University studied art history, drawing and photography during the ‘60s, Mr. Simmons immersed himself in the principles of economics, statistics and micro- and macroeconomic theories. After graduating, he obtained his master’s degree in economics and landed a position with the Department of Commerce as an economist. From there, Mr. Simmons entered the private sector for a while, worked for various District government agencies, did a stint at Citibank, then accepted a position at Riggs Bank, where he has worked for the past 10 years.

“The one common theme in my career has been to focus on the low- and moderate-income population of this city. You can truly do well and do good at the same time in this business,” Mr. Simmons says.

His business philosophy has carried over into artwork, and it, too, is doing well.

“I’ve enjoyed peak periods where I painted quite a bit and then, of course, there were some dry years when I did not pick up a brush. Then, maybe about 15 years ago, I began to paint consistently, and for the most part I painted for my own pleasure,” he says.

Nowadays, the public can enjoy his artwork at Wohlfarth Galleries and Washington Works on Paper in the historic Brookland community in Northeast and at Colonel Brooks’ Tavern.

Five of his recent abstract paintings are featured throughout the SkyClub, a posh private room at the Zanzibar nightclub that overlooks the Potomac on the Waterfront in Southwest. Mr. Simmons’ artwork also graces the lobby of the United Planning Organization on Rhode Island Avenue in Northwest, where the board room at the new headquarters bears his name.

Mr. Simmons is self-taught, like artists Horace Pippin, Bill Traylor, Clementine Hunter and Andy Warhol protege Jean-Michel Basquiat.

“What I try to do is develop a style where I blend colors together, and in doing so, I use brushes and rollers, cloth and sponges — whatever I need to get the feelings and the combination of colors that I am looking for,” he says.

“For the most part, I like bright colors, depending on the subject and the mood and the effect that I’m trying to achieve. But I’ve done a few works that have been very dark and somber.”

Mr. Simmons says he has never enrolled in or audited an art class in his life. Well, maybe one — he did take a ceramics course, but that was it.

“Over the years, I think not taking classes has been very helpful because I never knew what I couldn’t do. No one said, ‘You can’t do this or you can’t do that.’ It’s art that gives you a great deal of freedom, and you are free to create at will, and if you don’t like it, you can start all over again,” he says, laughing.

Last year was the first time Mr. Simmons’ work was exhibited at the Wohlfarth Galleries, in a one-man show that was very well attended. The opening surprised many of his friends and colleagues who were unaware of his 30-year hobby of painting.

“That was really my coming out, and it was a spectacular evening,” Mr. Simmons recalls.

Inspired by his words of encouragement about art enhancing a community, Lavinia Wohlfarth, who opened Wohlfarth Galleries 15 years ago, took an immediate liking to the businessman and agreed to take a look at his work.

“When I saw his artwork, I just loved it. I said, ‘We got to show these pieces,’” she says.

One piece in particular caught Ms. Wohlfarth’s eye — a historical work Mr. Simmons created in the early ‘70s titled “1972.” The 28-by-28-inch collage, an oil on board, chronicles nearly a decade of turbulence in America from 1967 through 1972. The snapshot of history was created through the use of various newspapers and magazines, social and political slogans of the time and clippings of famous blacks, including abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

That piece convinced Ms. Wohlfarth of the artist’s talent. She gave him the thumbs up and encouraged him to show his work to the world.

“He wants opinions. He wants critique, and that’s good because that’s how artists grow, if they allow it. I expect that he’s going to have a wonderful career because he enjoys it so much,” she says.

“He’s developed a beautiful technique of putting down paint in a contemporary way. There’s a great piece [titled], “New York,” [2002]. You feel as if you’re in New York City. It’s a contemporary abstract landscape. There’s somewhat of an idea of a skyline, but it’s more than that — it’s done with colors that make you feel like you’re in the city,” Ms. Wohlfarth says.

Another favorite of the art dealer’s is “African Standing Out.” The 28-by-45-inch painting hangs at Colonel Brook’s Tavern, a neighborhood restaurant and watering hole. Ms. Wohlfarth describes the painting as possessing the characteristics of sturdy oak.

“It’s a large figure of a very strong traditional African — that’s the feeling. But it looks like a mask; it’s a strong, contemporary figure. It leans toward expressionism,” she says.

“It has so much strength, and he should be very proud of his work. It really completes his circle. You can’t often see the artist in the work — sometimes you can, sometimes you can’t. In this work, it reflects him,” Ms. Wohlfarth says.

Mr. Simmons’ exhibit at the Zanzibar Sky Club last spring was a huge success, and since then, the artist has been painting about two pieces a month.

“This experience has added a real and new meaning to my life. I never considered myself to be an artist. I was just a guy who painted — it was a hobby, and I didn’t share it with anybody. Now, I have the confidence to share,” he says with a smile.

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