Facing Traci: The Reflective Social Realism of Traci Mims
by D. Amari JacksonSpirit work by Traci Mims
When you enter the creative space of Traci Mims, the Florida-born artist’s face stares back at you from sizable walls stretching to vaulted ceilings, from numerous angles and various positions, challenging you to see her fully, honestly, her range of attitudes and demeanors, from pathos to perseverance, from vulnerable to serene. In between these compelling self-portraits, social justice imagery shares space with family members who gaze back knowingly as if watching the artistic trajectory of their talented relative unfold before them, upon the desk and easel centering her living room-turned-studio outside Atlanta.
Amidst such provocative self, cultural, and familial imagery, Mims is home.
“That’s my daughter,” clarifies Mims, pointing to her work, Legacy. The image depicts an African American girl with long braids hoisting an African statue on her head. “This is one of the pieces I’m doing in response to them trying to wipe away Black history and whitewash it,” she explains, noting the significance of having “a young person holding up a statue of an African figure and bringing the focus of attention to studying art history and not letting it go.”
In mid-August, Legacy was one of Mims’ prints on display at the first-ever Atlanta Fine Art Print Fair at the Black Art In America Gallery and Sculpture Garden in East Point, Georgia. The event highlighted the rich tradition and intricate process of printmaking while showcasing the works of over 50 legacy and contemporary artists. Attendees engaged participating artists and master printmakers through interactive demonstrations and discussions.
Along with printmaking, the former public school art teacher is skilled in a variety of artistic forms including painting, drawing, quilting, sculpture, and graphic design. Though the forms may vary, Mims’ work is connected by her affinity for culture and social justice.
“I consider myself a social realist because I focus on the lives of everyday Black people, the things they experience, and how they react to it emotionally,” says Mims. “With the pandemic, a lot of stuff happened around that timeframe, all the social injustices—that stuff really got to me. I can make pretty pictures and sell, and do portraits of beautiful people, but I feel like it’s my responsibility to push the history and the narrative that they don’t want you to hear, that they’re trying to wipe out with legislation and through education, and don’t want people to know the stuff they’ve done and that they’re still doing.” And the hardest thing, she continues, was that “during the pandemic, I saw all the things that I’ve seen or experienced my whole life—the redlining, the low wages, the unfair incarceration, the racial profiling.”
“My mother died from Covid,” adds Mims. “And the thing about it was, when I visited her in the hospital, it was full of Black people.”
Mims has ever been concerned with the plight of Black people. Drawing since the age of four, one of six children, the St. Petersburg, Florida native was inspired by her father’s drawings along with the work of such luminaries as Charles White, Elizabeth Catlett, and Romare Bearden. She qualifies her inspiration as “mostly sensory, what I hear, what I see, what I experience—it’s my upbringing, my cultural background, and social issues that overwhelmingly affect people of color.” These issues were present in Saint Petersburg, a city with beautiful beaches and affluent areas that often belied the starker reality of those residents, like her family, with less means.
Mims captures the cultural nuances produced by such an environment. She points to a piece on her wall, Lucky Bamboo, containing family images juxtaposed with a Native American and a spray bottle. It pulls from the longtime association of the lucky bamboo plant and other items with wealth and prosperity. “That’s just me growing up witnessing some of the things my mom or my aunts believed,” says Mims, depicting how they would spray such products “in the house because they thought it was going to bring them some type of financial blessing. That was just a cultural thing, and you see that Indian Money house spray everywhere.”
Because of her family’s financial struggles, the talented student never seriously considered a career in art as she further associated it with struggle. Instead, upon attending college at Florida A&M in the mid-1980s, she majored in architecture. But while taking a drawing class as an elective, Mims was encouraged by its teacher to pursue a career in art. Growing weary of the consuming program requirements for architecture, she switched her major to art and was exposed to printmaking. Mims would go on to receive a BA in art from Florida A&M and an MFA from Temple University’s Tyler School of Art with a focus on printmaking.
At Temple, Mims “really developed the mindset of an artist. Unless you’ve traveled to cities like Philadelphia where they have a really fast cultural scene or art scene, you just don’t know the difference. I mean, it’s a big difference. 'Cause you’re right there near New York, you can go back and forth, and so I was exposed to a lot, which was a great experience,” she says, adding “I don’t think my outcome would’ve been the same if I didn't have that experience.”
Reluctantly, Mims admits she still pulls a bit from her training and experience with architecture. “Like architecture, printmaking can be very precise,” she acknowledges, noting that “in my printmaking, I’m more process oriented, more meticulous, and more structural than in my other creative processes.”
Over the years, Mims’ creative processes have brought her a bevy of awards, fellowships, exhibitions, and public art commissions both in Atlanta and in Jacksonville, Florida, her previous residence. Recent honors include the McClain Award Relief Printmaking Atlanta Print Biennial 2023; the Artist Fellowship Inc. Grant 2023; an artist grant from the Cultural Council of Northeast Florida in 2019; and an Art Ventures grant from the Community Foundation of Northeast Florida in 2019.
“I love that Traci incorporates not only technical drawing, like charcoal and other means, but also her printmaking while working with different textiles and materials to create quilts and different things like that,” says Shawana Brooks, a curator and executive director of Moving the Margins, an artist residency and cultural program in Jacksonville. Brooks, who met Mims in 2006 and “fell in love” with her artistry, stresses the cultural significance of creating such diverse forms of art. “We probably wouldn’t even be here without those quilts back in the day that were feeding people directions, getting them food and security, and getting them taken care of during slavery.”
Brooks also loves how Mims “brings you into her world and makes you see her stance as a Black woman, as a Black person. She presents different tropes of society and breaks them down.”
As an artist committed to addressing the vexing social issues of our day, Mims is well aware of the associated cost. “I know there’s a lot of galleries who didn’t touch my work because of the content, but I just had the mindset I’m gonna put it out there and it's gonna be seen,” she says, promoting how “at the end of the day, I’m gonna make it regardless of how people feel about the grittiness of it, or anything like that, because the world has not been kind to us.”
“Why would I want to sanitize my work?” begs Mims. “So that’s what further motivates me, that there’s something that I have to say, that I have to preserve these stories and keep creating them.”
“If I had to sum up Traci’s work in one word, it’s intimate,” offers Princess Simpson Rashid, a painter and printmaker who met Mims in Jacksonville well over a decade ago. “Her work is very soulful, very intimate. She’s very good at depicting her life and women’s issues in a way that kind of reminds me of how Elizabeth Catlett approached her body of work.”
“There is very much about her life and reflections of herself in Traci’s art, and many of her works deal with her own face or portraits of her, whether in printmaking or drawing,” says Rashid, noting “she always starts close to home.”
Mims acknowledges that such intimate introspection can be challenging. She points to a large lifelike image of her own face bearing a troubled expression. “Oh yeah, that was during that time period,” she says, with a laugh. “I think I had a blue period, like Picasso.”
Another image adorning the wall over her shoulder shows her contemplative while holding a broom, a religious symbol in the backdrop. “This is an old piece called Delusions of Grandeur. It’s kind of a personal story,” she reveals, pointing to a challenging time in her life over a decade ago. “I went through a divorce and it was just me and my three children so that’s why you see the woman standing there by herself. She’s got her broom like she’s doing all these duties. The broom represents work and duty, and she’s doing it alone. And she only has her faith to rely on and that’s why you see the religious reference in the background.”
Consistently, Mims speaks to the therapeutic value of art. “Art allows you to release what’s in your heart and mind. It comes out on the canvas or paper, whatever you’re working on, and it’s a good release. Sometimes it’s therapy because it occupies your mind and distracts you from other things.”
Seen this way, it could ultimately be said that Mims’ artistic success comes from her ongoing quest to master the art of facing herself.
“It has to be therapy because everybody I know my age is on medication,” offers Mims, half-joking.
She quickly clarifies.
“I am not.”