Mike Sims is a bit emotional. As he prepares to celebrate 40 years of working with an array of acclaimed artists, the master printer admits it's overwhelming.
"Huge memories, yeah," Sims says, shaking his head. "The biggest memories are the relationships with the artists, many of whom are dead and gone now.”
Since 1979, artists from around the United States have traveled to Lawrence, and then later to Kansas City, to work with Sims.
Using lithography — a complicated method involving drawings on heavy stone — he helps painters, sculptors and other types of artists make prints. Over the years he's produced work by more than 130 American artists.
Now, a show at Belger Crane Yard Studios highlights his long career.
"Mike and I go way back," says Roger Shimomura, a Lawrence-based artist with a national following who arrived at Sims' workshop shortly after it opened. "We go back almost to day one. I didn't give birth to him but pretty close. And I think I was one of the first persons that he printed."
Most people know Shimomura for provocative, pop art-style paintings that explore Asian American identities. The prints he makes with Sims follow the same theme.
"I think the longer you have that relationship, the better it becomes or the more finely-tuned it becomes," says Shimomura. "You know, you start understanding each other because it's a give and take."
Sims fell in love with the process of lithography when he was a college student in Michigan. For him, there was something deeply satisfying about drawing directly on a stone. After a stint in grad school at Ohio University, he opened his workshop in Lawrence. Despite his success working with artists, the business part of his lithography venture was always a struggle, so Sims moved around a lot in those early days, eventually landing in El Paso in 2000.
But the Kansas City art world didn't forget about him. Sims was on Richard Belger's mind back when Belger was planning to open the Belger Crane Yard Studios at 20th and Tracy near downtown. He had a vision to include anchor businesses, places where artists could work together.
"I thought, you know, if Kansas City's ever going to develop, we have to build an infrastructure for them, which means studios and it means printers," Belger says. "And one of the things that had occurred to me was we'd lost Mike Sims.”
In 2001, Belger convinced Sims to move back to Kansas City. Since then, many artists have made the trek to his workshop, including 3D artists such as sculptors Robert Stackhouse, Luis Jiménez and ceramic artist Akio Takamori.
"He has the ability to get some really good people into his studio to print," says Belger.
Kansas City sculptor Marcie Miller Gross, who is known for her work with industrial felt, says she was fascinated by the way the printing process slowly builds up color layer by layer.
"Each layer had a function, if you will, that conveyed a certain amount of information," says Gross. "And then, when they're all brought together in one layer, it's just magical. That's his gift, I think."
Through these collaborations, Sims has quietly left his mark on the work of dozens of artists in Kansas City and across the country. Belger says his legacy is bigger than anyone realizes.
"The ideas that Mike had will live on," Belger says. "You know, those are really his children. It's not the damn prints. It's the artists that he's influenced."
Looking back, Sims says it is the people he remembers most vividly.
"I guess the greatest reward of this whole business," he says, "has been the extraordinary number and range and caliber of artists that I've worked with over the years."
"The Lawrence Lithography Workshop: 40 Years in Prints 1979-2019," opens 6-9 p.m. Friday, September 6, at Belger Crane Yard Studios and The Lawrence Lithography Workshop Gallery, 2011 Tracy Avenue, Kansas City, Missouri 64108.
Julie Denesha is a freelance photographer and reporter for KCUR. Follow her on Twitter @juliedenesha.