Auburn Magazine: In an online bio, you describe how growing up in a small Alabama town influences the emotions, thoughts and ideas that animate your work. What about that experience still guides you and your work forward?
Lynthia Edwards: “The works that I create are genuinely about me—I am the true subject behind each and every piece. Having grown up in a small Alabama town is an experience not many people care to talk about. Truth be told, it’s an experience that the world wants to know about. People find the South interesting. My southern black (not a BIPOC) [youth] in a small Alabama town came with a wealth of taboos and cultural richness that influenced my very being to the core. It’s who I am. It’s my truth story. It’s what I know best. It’s my way of preserving who I am, where I’m from and how we do it.”
Did you always want to be an artist?
“No! Growing up, I had dreams of being an obstetrician. My senior year in high school, I took a career aptitude assessment that resulted in 101 career options I should pursue that involved working with my hands. I knew I was creative and could draw, so I decided I’d go to art school.”
What brought you to Auburn? What do you remember most about your time there?
“I came to Auburn to pursue a degree in art education. I mostly remember the amazing studio instructors I had and how I was inspired by them. My time at Auburn was my first experience with true working artists, and my degree in art education was the springboard to my artistic career.
Lynthia Edwards ’00
My exposure to these instructors that were living, breathing artists really changed my perspective about becoming an art teacher. I knew then that I was acquiring the skills, knowledge and exposure necessary to evolve beyond the classroom.”
Did you know what kind of medium you wanted to work in as an artist? What did you discover about your creative process while working in the beginning?
“As an artist, I work in several mediums—it really depends on the events happening in my life at the time I’m creating.
Where do you go to find inspiration?
“I’m inspired by my childhood experiences. There are often times when I will get in my car drive to places that are relative to a memory that I just can’t shake off. Those are the ones that become the best works. [But there’s] never a firm idea. I grew up with so many ‘dos and don’ts’s’ that, as an artist, I have to allow myself the freedom to create as I go. There’s never a blueprint to my creation.”
How does your heritage as a southern woman influence your work?
“My heritage as a southern black woman greatly inspires my work. I create work about the southern black girl experience. My experiences as both are the very stories I choose to tell through my art. It influences my color palette, the clothing my subjects wear, and what I will and won’t create.”
What, in your opinion, is the role of heritage or innate culture in the artist?
“I think heritage and culture naturally drives an artist. It becomes their creative voice. It’s the story of who we are as creatives and how we came to be and regardless of what an artist creates there’s always going to be evidence of who we are.”
Tell me about the term “Black Girl Magic” — what does it mean to you?
“To me, ‘Black Girl Magic’ means the ability to defy the odds and celebrate your accomplishments.
In addition to being an artist, you’re also an educator, activist, mother and foster parent. How do you balance all these different roles?
“Whew! There are times it’s really hectic and chaotic. It takes a lot of patience, prayer and super-late nights and early mornings. I don’t do it all by myself. I have adult children that help me out tremendously. All these different roles have certainly inspired my work. There have been times when the simplest chuckle or conversation between children have sparked so many creative possibilities for me.”
At a 2018 exhibition of portraits of famous Alabamians, the late congressman John Lewis purchased your portrait of him, which was based on his mugshot from the Civil Rights Era. What about John Lewis spoke to you?
“I remember the way I felt a as young black girl viewing the footage of the march from Selma to Montgomery. The brutal attack on those foot soldiers traumatized me. I will never forget seeing that for the first time. For years growing up wondered whether the man that was brutally attacked survived. I wondered what happened to him? He was John Lewis—he was a real live superhero in my eyes.”
Tell me about your work with Kate Damon on the DC Sparkle Squad. How did that begin? “Kate Damon and I met the day I was to meet Congressman Lewis. She was a member of his entourage and an art collector. She actually purchased several works as well during their time in Montgomery. Kate and I just vibed from the start and have kept in touch til this day. DC Sparkle Squad was Kate’s idea—it was a way for us to honor the philosophy of our superhero Congressman Lewis. [We] created, designed posters that were to encourage and inspire citizens to activate their superpowers and VOTE.”
What’s next for you?
“What’s next for me is working my tail feathers off to become a well-known artist. Like, when you Google me, I want my photo to show up and labeled as ‘Lynthia Edwards: American Artist’.”
My days at Auburn were extremely special, having shaped me to become the person I am today, and having introduced and connected me with friends that I now consider as close as family. From fall days rooting on the Tigers and enjoying the sounds and cheers of Jordan-Hare football games, to spring days feeling the breeze of the air under sunny skies as I walked to class through the Concourse, the memories of my time at Auburn University are incredibly precious and unforgettable, and represent one of the most amazing periods of my life.
I wasn’t involved in many student organizations during my time there, choosing instead to work at a number of campus departments (three cheers for Haley Center’s Take Ten and the DUC – Dept. of University Computing!!) to provide a bit of supplemental financial support for school; but my time working and studying and playing and growing with fellow Auburn family enriched my life in a way I could have never imagined.
I was blessed to successfully complete the Masters program in Chemical Engineering in Spring of 1998, and am currently working as a senior software engineer for a Fortune 500 financial institution here in the Southeast. Although my educational and career paths did not exactly align like I would’ve expected them to in those days, I am thankful for everything I learned during my time at Auburn – not *what* to think but *how* to think, and a “head-down-and-do-it” attitude and spirit that I’ve adopted since those days, which has served me very well throughout every facet of my life thus far.
Keith Cain ’98
Kris Sims didn’t wake up that day looking to take a stand. In fact, in the beginning he really wasn’t trying to get involved. But when the death of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed black man, became a flashpoint in the ongoing unrest over police violence in black communities, Sims felt compelled to act.
The photographer and videographer’s ongoing “Black Tears” portrait series is his symbolic—and literal—response to police brutality in 2020.
“[Ahmaud Arbery] was my age,” said Sims of the Brunswick, Ga. man who was murdered while jogging. “That could have been me. Then, almost right after, there was Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd set everything off.”
Inspired by the campus candlelight vigils he photographed while working for the Auburn Plainsman, he incorporated black wax to symbolize the tears shed by the black community. When he began pouring the hot (but harmless) wax beneath his eyes, the art project took on a new meaning. “I just feel like a superhero—it’s not my mask, but that vulnerability, just having it out for everyone to see, makes me feel powerful, because I’m not known for being too vulnerable in the past. These times call for us to just lay it up there.”
For someone so reticent to express their own emotions, Sims has no problem drawing it out of others.
After graduating from Auburn, he got an internship working for Coca-Cola in Atlanta and has remained with them ever since. He now works as a photographer and videographer for internal events, conferences and campus events, capturing behind-the-scenes moments for Coke’s corporate marketing operations, social media and more.
“I really like to look for just smiles and moments of excitement,” Sims said of his photographic subjects. “I’m not afraid to go up to people and ask them, ‘Hey, do you mind if I take your picture next to this big Coke bottle?’ I like to get group happiness. If 20 people are smiling in a photo, it makes me happy.”
One day, Sims wants work on Coke commercials, and is building up a portfolio of video projects to bolster his resume. In March 2020, he finished a four-year-long project with Electric Machine Media for WalMart starring former Auburn football player Derek Brown called “Raising A Giant”. Sims got to know Brown’s family well, visiting his childhood home and traveling with his family to a game in Tuscaloosa. Though he began on the project as an assistant, Sims earned their trust to progress as a behind-the-scenes photographer and, later, as an important part of the team.
He’s also helped produce a commercial for Lake Lanier Campgrounds and a speaker series at the Herndon House in Atlanta, where the leader of United Way interviewed community leaders.
One of the corporate events for Coca-Cola that Simms photographs
“I do have quite a few mentors who I just look up to, and they look out for me, which is always good to have. I just learned that you just got to be decisive and confident. Learning from the work that I’m doing, learning from every gig I got.” To Sims, imagery is nothing without symbolism. If he takes a thousand photos, only a hundred are useable. Of those, maybe only one captures the emotion of the moment, conveying the meaning he wants.
Symbolism was at the heart of the first “Black Tears” photos, which began as an art project. Particularly after his grandfather’s funeral, the normally reticent Sims understood the impact that tears can have.
“I kind of realized, most times I cried in the past, someone that’s close to me has died. I’m not just crying at every movie, It’s meaningful. I was losing it so bad [at the funeral], but afterwards, people came up to me and said that was powerful. ‘I wanted to cry when I saw you doing that.’ It impacted people to see me crying for my grandpa.”
The “Black Tears” images grew out of that emotion and allowed Sims to make a stand not only in public but online.
Sims had never experimented with the concept at a protest, but at a rally outside the Georgia capital, inspired by the group of speakers, he felt compelled to get up and speak. When he removed his mask, the ‘black tears’ quickly captivated the crowd’s attention.
“I go up there with my mask on, of course. No one can hear me. I don’t know what I was saying, but no one could hear me, so it didn’t matter. Everyone was like, ‘Take off your mask,’ and I kind of forgot I had the black tears on. I take off the mask, and I can see everyone’s eyes just look super surprised. If it’s going to shock people, maybe they’ll remember it.”
It wasn’t long before others were encouraged to adopt the “Black Tears” metaphor. At another protest, when someone was unsure of wearing the wax, he explained “it represents the cries on the streets. These tears represent cries of the oppressed.” Even the application process — waiting for the wax and flame to cool — is symbolic. Though Sims readily professes to never being an ‘activist’ before, he can still recall the moment he saw, in person, President Obama hugging Civil Rights icon John Lewis in Selma, Ala. on the Edmund Pettis Bridge in 2015. It makes him contemplate his own role in this new Civil Rights movement.
“Compared to the days of Martin Luther King, our struggle hasn’t been quite as intense as that, but now it feels like it’s coming to that. As a black guy, not taking a public stance, or just going silent, it’s like, you know what? I’m not going to be that guy. I’m not going to be the guy who sits back and watches what happens.
I’m just going to try to be involved. If I can make it a certain distance and hand it off to anyone, I would be okay with that. I just want to have some type of impact towards equality and having justice for everyone.”
Simms at a rally in 2020
I arrived at Auburn in January 2009 after completing an Associate’s Degree at Southern Union State Community College. I was not the typical straight out of high school student. I was a 45 year old military veteran and local Baptist Church Pastor. I was an African-American husband of 20 years and father of three—the only male in an elementary education cohort of 24 females, only one of which was African-American.
I immediately became the “father” of the group, being the oldest and only male. I mentored undergraduate students for the Office of Diversity, was a part of the Honors College, and even worked for Veterans Services. I finished with a 3.84 Auburn GPA and was selected as the Student Marshall for the College of Education’s Fall 2010 graduation.
After graduation, I worked as a long-term substitute teacher in a local school system before being hired to work at Auburn Athletics. I was then afforded an opportunity to return to school, where I achieved a Master’s of Education in Adult Education in Fall 2013 at the age of 50. Currently, I am an Adult Educator with Chattahoochee Valley Community College. My wife is a 20 year Auburn University employee. My son graduated from Auburn in 2017. My twin daughters graduated from Auburn in 2020. We are what the Auburn Family is all about. I am blessed to have never been made to feel like anything less than what I am: An Auburn Man!
I graduated Spring 2020 with a Ph.D. in History from the University of South Carolina (UofSC). I recently won a postdoctoral fellowship to teach social advocacy, ethics, and history at UofSC for the 2020-2021 school year. Most importantly, my journey into academia started at Auburn, but it was not a linear path.
I actually started Auburn as a Freshman Bellsouth Minority Engineering student in 2003, under the late Dr. Dennis Weatherby. I lived at Sewell Hall for two years and had some fun memories there. My major for 3 years was actually Wireless Engineering. While taking engineering classes, I had some great history classes for my minor, but never thought about pursing a career in academia. I was, and am, like a bunch of college students; I erroneously believed that you only went to college to just get a degree that got you a job with a good salary. I was planning on finishing up as an engineer like my dad, but I always had more passion for my history studies.
I’m from Montgomery, Alabama and graduated from Robert E. Lee High School. I had a ton of questions about my local history, especially the historical and spatial relationship of African American neighborhoods and infrastructure. I did not personally know any historians, and my social studies teachers were usually the football coach.
My Auburn professors, Dr. Kenneth Noe and Dr. Charles Israel showed me what historians did and how they went about answering tough historical questions. I was hooked. Interestingly, my engineering advisor was a history buff and gave me frank advice and encouragement to switch from the College of Engineering to the College of Liberal Arts. I was unsure about the logistics and time that it would take to get a history degree after being a Junior, but it was the best decision ever.
My undergraduate professors, Dr. William Trimble and Dr. Tiffany Thomas Sippial, helped hone my writing and analytical skills. I ended up learning from the entire history faculty, along with geography professor Dr. Joshua Inwood, who was an Auburn professor at the time. Auburn had, and has, one of the best history faculties in the nation. I was lucky to have been a student when I was.
While an undergrad at Auburn, I saw the bigger picture about what I wanted to do with my career, and decided to get my doctorate in history so that I could teach and research. That led me to work for the U.S. Historian of the House of Representatives in 2009 after I graduated. My work in Washington D.C. gave me great experience and allowed me to go back to Auburn to get my Master’s of Art in History in 2012 under Dr. David Carter.
My graduate experience was beyond helpful and prepared me for the rigors of doctoral studies. Furthermore, working with Dr. Donna Bohanan and Dr. Patience Essah and Dr. Jortner were incredible experiences. I ended up getting accepted into the History Doctoral program at the University of South Carolina in 2014, and I was able to receive full funding and a stipend for my entire time at UofSC.
My academic foundation at Auburn University helped me realize my career goals, but also helped me appreciate the camaraderie and intangibles that I gained while a student at Auburn. I graduated debt-free this past Spring, which is a blessing. I hope that all Auburn graduates learn how to network and navigate the academic and financial challenges that are a part of the university experience.
The journey is not easy, but I was fortunate enough to be helped by the larger Auburn community, as well as taught by some incredible professors. I owe a lot to Auburn University and I wanted to share how much I appreciate my time and training while an undergraduate and graduate student at Auburn.