David Driskell, an authority on black American art, has long been convinced that the celebrated wroughtiron balconies in New Orleans and Charleston, South Carolina, were the work of anonymous slaves who had carried the ancient skills of West African metalworkers across the Atlantic with them.
Recently Driskell was delighted to find living proof of his thesis when he met Philip Simmons, a seventy-year-old black ironworker whose ties go back to the era when the balconies were first wrought.
At the age of eight Simmons was apprenticed to a ninety-year-old man who, in turn, had learned his trade from one of the mid-nineteenth-century slave artisans. Simmons grew up to work the old craft in the old way. At right he stands with one of his elaborate creations, the gate in front of a church on Wentworth Street in Charleston.
Examples of Simmons’ work are now on display in a large exhibition sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and Philip Morris, Inc., entitled “Two Centuries of Black American Art.” The first major historical survey of the black contribution to American art, the show opened last month in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and will subsequently travel to Atlanta and Brooklyn, New York.