Constellation is a cohort of seven artists, Constellation: Video Storytelling, each creating a short video to be presented in a looped series that will be projected onto the downtown Saint Paul Public Library – George Latimer on Rice Park. Videos shall interact with the architecture of the library building, transforming it into new visions for public space and public knowledge. Artists include: Za’nia Coleman; Boo McCaleb; SEE MORE PERSPECTIVE; Witt Siasoco; Miko Simmons; Jonathan Thunder; and Moira Villiard.
Blurring the lines between art and technology, theater and cinema, media and medium, Miko Simmons is an international award-winning Multimedia Artist/Theatrical Projection Designer/ Composer who has been innovating in the convergence of digital techniques for Film, Animation and Theater for more than twenty years. Currently transforming the worlds of Theater and Opera with magnificent projection set design, Miko has also consistently raised the creative bar for eloquent design and functionality in corporate, advertising agency, and fine art creative industries, Miko is now focused on reimagining the art gallery space in these pandemic times with his theatrical inspired paintings.
What is your background as an artist?
I started off as a painter, but I’ve always been deep into science, physics and art. I had family members that really encouraged and inspired me since I was young. My uncle Ken was one of my biggest influences. He was an artist and a mathematician. He was one of Control Data’s first programmers, and he left that and moved to New York to play jazz. He played with all the big name jazz players, like Count Basie’s Orchestra. He would come back into town and he gave me my first trumpet and my first paint brushes.
There was a pivotal moment where he came to town, he had written a mathematical formula on a piece of paper. He says, “You know what this is?” I was like, “It’s math.” He said, “It’s jazz.” I didn’t understand, but I later learned it’s calculus measures of how things change over time. He went through the various [parts], “This variable is the melody and this plays the chords, and these are the changes here that were derived from this thing and that thing.” I remember having this explosion, seeing this connection between sound, math, frequency and energy, and all these things that I was always into. Then I majored in Art and Physics in college at Hamline University. After that, I got so deep into physics that I decided art was my passion, but I didn’t have the confidence that I could do it.
The way I was raised. I went to college on a physics scholarship. You’re a young black male, you’re excelling in physics but have also won the Minnesota Senior Art competitions. Painting was always part of my life, so it just clicked, it all kind of came together.
I mostly came up embracing technology and I happened to grow into it at the same time that personal computers were proliferating. I had that [desire] to make art when I first saw that you can make art on a computer. My artist community was like, “That’s not real art, you’ll never do anything with that.” That kind of led me down the path that I’m in.
Do you feel like people like your Uncle Ken gave you permission to try new things in life?
Oh, absolutely. He was fearless. Not just in the context of not going with the flow. He sacrificed his family, he sacrificed everything for his passion, and he saw that in me. My mom was the Assistant Dean at Hamline at the time. My father was a CPA, you know, corporate director. It was, “You are going to do science because we already had an artist in the family.”
Particularly when you’re African American or a person of color, excelling in these things, they just want you to be successful, safe and secure and all that. But yeah, it gave me the freedom to do the things I’m doing now, and he [Uncle Ken] led by example, always showed up.
I had other people in the community. I’m working on an upcoming production with Seitu [Jones] at Penumbra. When I had entered this senior art competition, Seitu and Ta-coumba [T. Aiken] were the only two black male artists on the jury. They came to me and said, “Young brother, you have some talent. Don’t let them tell you that you can’t do art for a living here, because they’re going to try. You got to start on this and that. Here’s my card, here’s my number.” Both of them showed up for me over the past 30 years, saying “Here’s this opportunity. Apply for this. Here’s this show. Enter some pieces.” They were two of the people that were very integral to me even having the awareness that it was a possibility to do art.
Did you feel any pressures of being a Black man growing up in an underserved community?
Absolutely. By the time I was 23, of the eight friends I grew up with, most were in prison, or probably two or three were dead. They were gifted, they were smart, they had all these qualities that could have been nurtured into success. I think the difference for me was that I had both parents in my house who would whip my ass. [My friends] would be like, “We’re gonna go break into this house,” and I was like, “Okay, see you later.”
I came from a legacy of people who had a level of expectation and excellence. Both my parents were Macalester College graduates, and their parents were college graduates. That’s a rare thing to have in a Black community, multiple generations of college educated people and family.
People love the story of the underdog, but what about the people that didn’t make it? Do you ever feel resentment on why we wouldn’t tell their story, too?
Resentment isn’t something that’s part of my spirit path. I have lived in a space of creating and manifesting what I need when I need it and how to navigate that space. I know that I have an influence on others. I’ve had many friends who have come back years later and said, “We always thought you were kind of a nerd, but you were a cool nerd. You always showed love and respect to everybody, no matter where they were. You never judge,” and I was like, “I’m no higher or lower than anyone I’m around.” I know that the circumstances and choices are everything, but in terms of telling those stories, I try to do that in my work. I’ve been reaching into that space through my art, through my technology, through my music and other forms of creativity I explore.
It might appear that I have passed on things to others, but they pass a lot more to me. They inspire me. Most of my collaborators are Millennials and Gen Z. Of course I have collaborators and influences that I’ve grown up with, but they’re dying. Bill Cottman was one of the legacy photographers in town, he was a black photographer, but he also had an engineering background. He was a projection designer as well, so we connected in that sphere. The people I grew up with and that I connected with, I’ve lost four or five friends that were longtime collaborators in the last couple of years. I’m honored by the opportunities that I get. They definitely inspired me and I’ve been purposefully working in that space.
I was with the Big Brothers organization for years, and I’ve always been inspired by young people and their level of openness and excitement in the world. There’s all these possibilities. I’ve worked with the Guthrie, they have a program called the Guthrie Experience where they bring in top tier students from all the top universities and they co-create a piece. I was involved in that for many years, where they bring in professionals in the theater-making process to mount a production in a professional space like the Guthrie. I came into it like, “Okay, let’s just make some art.” After leaving, I had no idea that it was going to open up these challenges. There was one instance where a piece that they wrote was basically a graphic novel on stage. I composed all the music, and I did all the animation as well. It was a five-minute opera, and a show tunes piece, and a jazz piece, and a hip hop piece, and all these different genres and. It challenged me. I never really had my voice in my music until I got into this, collaborating with these young people. They got me to lean into it in a way that I had never leaned into before. I always felt like it was broken.
With my artwork, as well, I haven’t mounted many shows because every piece that I do looks like it’s done by different artists because I’m looking for a different avenue, a different expression, a different set of tools to explore. There’s endless possibilities. I approached galleries, I was like, “Well, I have three of these and two of these,” but they were like, “We need 10 pieces that just look cohesive and tell the story.” By the time I get to the third or fourth piece, I’m bored. I want to do something else, I don’t want to do that. I’ve had that over and over. I was doing figurative painting of models and nudes and stuff, and it was very successful. I had bookings for like, a year, but it would take a couple months to do a painting. After the third or fourth piece, I was like, “I don’t want to do this anymore.” I had thousands of dollars sitting on the table. I was just like, “I’m so sorry, I just can’t do this.” That has been an advantage and a disadvantage, because of the world, the market, how you’re expected to show up. Capitalism, it feeds a thing, and I’ve always rejected that.
I don’t think you realize, but you just encapsulated your uncle Ken’s life in what you just said. You’re like, “I want to try something new, I want to do as many things as I want.” How did you know that you didn’t want to do physics anymore? Was there a catalyst that triggered the ending? Or was it over time?
I was in my senior year of college. I was on a six-year plan in college. I remember a couple of things that happened. I had a major car accident where I had a near-death thing. I just kind of had to step back from everything. I had a moment. The physics professor wrote a problem on the board at the beginning of the year and said, “If you solve this problem, you will get credit.”
Like in Good Will Hunting.
Yes! I needed the credit because I was not a good student. I wasn’t a smart student, but I didn’t want to be where I was. I didn’t like the environment, I encountered perpetual racism and perpetual bias from the professors, from students, from faculty and administrators. This was in the mid 1980s, and it hasn’t really changed a whole lot. I remember having this moment, it was spring break, and I was like, “I gotta get these credits, so I’m gonna try to solve this problem.” I was getting straight A’s in physics, but C’s and D’s in math, because I just didn’t see it. In physics, I could see the answer, and I kind of invented my own math to solve the problem. I was often requested to take the test again in front of the professors, because they were like, “There’s no possible way you could have arrived at the solution without showing the work.” But I had this thing, and I hate to use that. I think Good Will Hunting romanticizes chronic depression and stuff like that. But I understood it, when I saw that. I was like, “Oh, yeah, that’s just real.”
I solved the problem. I remember the moment—I had an out of body experience, where I was sitting at my desk in my room, and my spirit body was up in the corner. I saw all the layers of scientific discovery, of physics. This portal opened up, and I went into the other side of the portal, and then I became really afraid. I was like, “I want to get back in my body!” I saw all the layers. I saw that the layer that we’re on, and the discovery of where physics is, I think what we know about quantum theory constitutes probably 7 to 12 percent of what is known in the universe. We have no idea. I saw all these layers, and it just unfolded, and I was like, “I can’t do this. There’s nothing that I can do that’s going to add to this.” It showed me creativity and the manifestation of love and the frequency in the interconnectedness of all things. That spiraled into me wanting to really lean into my art side more than science. I was blessed in that I was able to do all the things I’ve ever wanted to do.
I started off in pre-med, I started off in engineering. When I got out of college, I started a business doing visualization and computer graphics, and that led me into working with architects and do lacquers. I was visualizing white papers for Mayo Clinic researchers in the early ‘90s. I was introduced to biocontrol systems and virtual reality and everything that was on the fringes of technology in the computer realm, just pointing to where things are now. It was kind of like this confluence of, “This is what I’m supposed to be,” so it opened up all these other channels. I’ve had parallel careers, I’ve done the scientific stuff. That oftentimes paid the bills, and on the art side, I’ve been painting. I still paint. When the pandemic shut down [everything], that’s all I did. A friend of mine taught me how to make my own oil paints. The first couple of months, I was just grinding out these pigments and using the old master’s stuff, and it was just this meditative, sensual experience of just creating. It was alchemy.
Was there trial and error, to see what colors you’d get?
Absolutely. One of the things with oil painting is I always got sick. I have allergic allergies to the chemicals in store bought oils. So she [a friend of mine] was telling me, “I can teach you how to make your own paints out of natural pigments and natural stuff.” Her first challenge was for me to make ‘Miko blue,’ of my favorite [shade] of blue. There’s something beautiful about the science of it. It takes work to grind these things out, and it becomes this very meditative process, but there’s a point where it saturates. The colors shift, the frequency shifts, the viscosity shifts, and it becomes this magical thing that you just want to eat. It just looks so, so luscious. It was this beautiful process of learning. I’ve never had the time to learn properly. I never got real instructions. I was just figuring it out.
Are you okay with that?
In some ways, yes, but in other ways, I’ve learned from my friend who’s a masterful painter, who taught me how to make these paints. I learned more from her in five years than I learned in 25 years of just figuring it out. There are all these things that you eventually figure out. Leaning back to your earlier question about resentment, thinking back, if there is one thing that I had resented it’s that I’ve had to do everything from a perception of, “You can’t do that,” or ,“We’re not going to let you do that,” or, “We’re going to block you from doing that.” I’ve never had any instructors who have said, “I recognize you’re a truly gifted soul, and I want to see where we can take you.” My instructors were envious. They were like, “There’s no possible way you can do what you’re doing at the level you’re doing it, because you don’t fit in the scope of my perspective.”
I always wondered how far I could have gone quicker, if I had someone. It was very intentional, and sometimes it was very passive aggressive. It was like “I’m just not going to give you access, or I’m gonna block you from getting access.”
[I felt that] even during my first week of college at Hamline. I’m in higher education, I deserve to be there, I am qualified to be there, but because my mother was the Assistant Dean, people were like, “Oh, you’re just here because of your mom.” In order to get into the advanced art placement, I had to do a portfolio review. I laid my paintings and drawings out on the floor, and at that point I had done professional work with ad agencies and some other things. I had pictures of white people on the beach, and stuff like that. The professor walked around my work, and he said, “So which part of this did you do?” I was like, “I don’t understand the question. Why would I show you work that I didn’t do, in order to get into a program that I have to show up to?” He was like, “I didn’t know you people could draw like this.” You people? What does that even mean? Welcome to higher education, a white supremacist institution. I ended up having to bow to this person for the next three years. The beautiful part of Hamline was that it’s part of a five-college system, and you could take classes at any of the other schools. I ended up taking the majority of my classes at Macalester, St. Thomas, and St. Kate’s, just so that I could avoid this person. I got my first D in art from him. I took my work to the dean, and I was like, “I didn’t deserve a D. This is the work, these are the assignments and these are the deadlines. I didn’t miss the deadlines.” He forced this man to change it to a B, and that angered him [the professor] to no end, to the point where he’s gonna dig in to destroy me. He was kind of like, “How dare you go above me?” Then it became a ripple effect that impacted my mother and her work, and she was already dealing with the challenges of being the first black woman who was Assistant Dean at this white institution. I was president of the Black Student Organization, I was co-chair of the Pan-African Congress. I was revolutionary and angry.
As you should be.
Yeah. But you know, it’s destructive. It’s cellular. It’s stress. It’s trauma.
It gets passed on to your other relationships, your other work, too, and then you approach things more scared.
Right. I was always highly sensitive. I was an empath and a healer. I was highly sensitive to the vibrations of the world, and I was raised in a structure of Black maleness that expected you to “man up” or don’t deal with your pain, your trauma.” Just “man up.”
You were also raised in a generation that didn’t care about going to therapy. Now we’re more open about it.
Yeah, it wasn’t even an option. As an empath I see people’s colors. I see their pain, why their ego has taken over what they are. I tried to take that in, and I took that in to a point where it impacted me and almost killed me. I ended up in a hospital situation where I almost died. Fortunately I was working from my hospital bed at Mayo [Clinic], working on opening a show in Korea. They were like, “You’re at Mayo? You got to open this show up in two months, and you’ve got to come.” The doctors were like, “If you get on a plane, we don’t know if you’re gonna stroke out.” They brought me over, they said, “If you come we’ll get you a doctor here.” They put me in touch with this Chinese medicine master who said that Western medicine is very good at diagnosis but very bad at healing. He did his work with me and he recognized immediately that I am a healer. He was like, “You’ve been taking other people’s stuff in but you don’t protect yourself, you don’t have a way of filtering this stuff out. This is why it has traveled from here up into your brain. This is what’s going on with you, and I’m going to teach you how to reverse the polarity of your healing so that you could put it back into yourself.” That saved my life.
I was just thinking when you were talking about those people, and reflecting back on the original conversation of the “Mikes” in the world. Those individuals’ talent, I see that it’s raw and unfocused sometimes, but they are incredibly gifted souls. I think because I lack that, that is why I reach back and do that work. To inspire and to connect them, to expand and amplify that and not knowing that it was actually going to amplify my skills. That’s what feeds my soul – my creative and artistic soul.
The other thing that comes to mind is how I rejected being compartmentalized into something or another in a way that suppressed my ability to activate what is in me, outside of my legacy of my family. I was always put in this category of being a Black artist, not an artist. For years, I rejected doing black art. I was doing landscapes and stuff. I remember taking a portfolio of paintings to a gallery on Nicollet Mall when I was in college. I walked in and the woman behind the desk was like, “Can I help you with something?” I said, “Yeah, I want to share some art; I researched this gallery.” She was just like, “Oh, we don’t do Black art here. We don’t sell that.” I was like, “Well, I don’t do Black art, these are landscapes.” She didn’t even want to look at my work. There was a part of me that did not want to be connected to just this thing.
Then later in life, I had [certain] experiences. I had a moment where I was working in film and I was sitting across the table from Maya Angelou. She came into my office and sat down, pulled up a chair, and said, “Show me what you do, young man,” and we talked for 45 minutes. There was so much knowledge dropped in those 45 minutes, but one of the things she said to me that just hit me was that it is your responsibility, through your art, to record the times you live in. This is the legacy, this is how art has worked, and it impacted me because I felt guilty that I had rejected this. She was like, “Everywhere I go in the world, the first thing I do when I get to a new city is I go to the museums, but I always leave depressed because there’s no representation of us. You have to paint black angels.” I tried to paint Black angels for Maya for years. I realized, after failing, that I don’t see angels in the European context—these winged creatures dressed in white—I see them as swirling galaxies collapsing into each other, and liquid diamonds or something. I’ve seen angels, and they don’t look like that, so I had to rectify those things in my work.
When the pandemic shut [everything] down, I was so over telling European stories. Because those were the things that were funding [artists]. Even when I worked in Korea for seven years, designing big productions, they were all European stories. All these stories that have nothing to do with Korean culture. I was able to break through some of that, and I was able to do a couple of Korean productions that were rooted in traditional cultural aesthetics. That’s where I found I could really expand my scope of palette and context and everything else, but it was that whole thing of rejecting your own because of something someone else projects onto you. After the pandemic, I was like, “I’m not gonna do European stories. I’m just gonna focus on the legacy of my people.” I come from four generations of the Rondo neighborhood, people who have broken down barriers, they were activists and artists and teachers and musicians. Great people who come out of that want to tell those stories. I want to tell the stories of marginalized voices that don’t get access to operatic production value. That led me into doing stories with Asian and Latino theater companies and queer voices that don’t get the access to the production value that these big European stories do.
Do you understand that what you just said is about connectivity? When you talked about making the oil paints and how you were just working at it and working at it, and then it changes, the chemistry changes. That is basically what you just said, in essence.
Thank you for reflecting that. That’s good for my mind, for my movement.