"Walking Camera I, Jimmy the Camera (Color)," 1987 Cibachrome print, 64 x 46 inches. © Laurie Simmons, courtesy the artist and Salon 94, New York.

Since the mid-70’s, internationally recognized artist Laurie Simmons has staged scenes for her camera with dolls, ventriloquist dummies, mannequins and people to create images with intensely psychological subtexts. This September she will have an exhibition at Gallery Met and is working on a commission for the opera “ Two Boys.” In this interview with artist and Visual AIDS board member Lucas Michael, Simmons talks about her work as well as being the executor of Visual AIDS artist member Jimmy DeSana’s estate.

Lucas Michael: How did you and Jimmy meet?
Laurie Simmons: A bunch of us were meeting on the A train to go out to the Far Rockaway beaches. I saw this guy in a white panama hat with a yashica around his neck that he’d spray-painted white – very stylish. We agreed that we would look for a loft together – this was 1973. We eventually split a long skinny loft with windows at each end and set up twin darkrooms.

LM: In thinking about your work, and Jimmy's work, there is something so vibrant about your colors, the other-worldliness that you both create, and your interest in people as subjects and objects. Did you influence each other as artists?
LS: Let me be really straightforward about this – I learned just about everything I know from him. I tagged along when he shot, modeled for him and he taught me how to print and set up a darkroom. I’d never studied photography in art school – he taught me everything. My contribution to him was probably trying to pull him more towards defining himself as an artist rather than a photographer.

LM: Visual AIDS works with many estates and we see the amount of work and dedication it takes to do a good job. As someone caring for Jimmy's work and his legacy, I am curious to hear how you approach the work.

LS: I mentioned this recently in another interview – I think when someone close to you is dying and they ask a favor of you – you say yes. Jimmy was one of my best friends and he asked me to take his work. We were both 39. Neither of us had very much money. I had a little kid. I had no time. I’d never thought about what it would mean to be the executor of an artist’s estate. I didn’t know where I would keep the archive or how I would house it. I remember thinking 20 years – it will take at least 20 years for people to get the breadth and importance of this work. I made a promise to myself in the early years not to feel guilty when things weren’t happening with his work.

LM: How does it relate to your own practice as an artist?
LS: It’s difficult to explain what it feels like to be an artist who maintains the life work of another artist. It’s somewhere between being a custodian and actually being THE artist. I so believe in the work and I always have. There is no one but me to make the decisions and I try really hard to imagine how Jimmy would solve problems and answer questions. I realize more and more that everything has to come from me. I am very protective of the JDS estate and in a way much less polite and patient than I might be with my own work. There are a finite number of things and I fiercely guard them. My attitude towards his work has certainly influenced my attitude towards my own work. I have extremely well organized archives now. That’s primarily because of the state in which I found the work when I received it. Organization takes years.

LM: From the very beginning women have played a huge role within the epidemic, and continue to be vital within the ongoing crisis. As someone who has thought about the roles of women do you have any thoughts around the work of women within the ongoing AIDS movement?
LS: You know I’ve honestly never given that a bit of thought. My observation is that everyone’s efforts have been first and foremost about love and friendship. I don’t know a single soul who hasn’t experienced some loss as a result of the epidemic - which I know says something about the world I inhabit. I know women are meant to be nurturers and caregivers but in my own personal and anecdotal history I’ve seen everyone play a huge role – men, women, straight, gay. I will say that Jimmy’s mother Jo – a gracious southern lady – moved to New York City in the last months of Jimmy’s life to care for him. This was not easy for her. She and her sister rented rooms in some sort of church housing and really threw themselves into both Jimmy’s care and city life. They were really brave. Jo actually died a few months ago. We remained in touch. She was very proud of her son.

LM: There is something moody and fun about Party Picks. In putting the exhibition together what were some of the ideas you had?
LS: I actually left the concept and organization of the show to Fabienne Stephan of Salon 94. I am utterly thrilled that Salon is representing the estate. I’ve worked with them since 2010 and trust their vision and appreciate their dedication. I felt for their first JDS show I should open up the archives to them. I could’ve just given them 20 images and that would be that but with this plan Fabienne was able to spend real time with the work getting to know it. I love the result and what a fresh pair of eyes brought to the installation.

LM: Are there things happening in the art world, and the world at large, that give you hope?
LS: I feel the current situation – the apparent mind meld of art and the marketplace— is very damaging to all concerned. The meme that’s out there that the so called art market has the ability to ferret out what is truly good has a trickle down effect that makes everybody think less, contemplate less and search less for great artists and great art. There is a laziness and a willingness to equate high price success with high quality. It’s bullshit. I’m excited about young artists and young art and all the possibilities for change. My generation, overall, made something of a mess in the world. PLEASE help us undo it.

LM: We are in a moment where art from the 80s and early 90s is being re-examined. Looking at Jimmy's work and your work from the time, do you see anything now you didn't see then?
LS: With all of the (sometimes) sexual content in the JDS photographs and odd juxtapositions of humans and objects I think I may have missed how flat out drop dead gorgeous his pictures are OR maybe, at this stage of my life, I’m confident enough to just go there.

Party Picks: Estate of Jimmy DeSana is on view at Salon 94 until August 9, 2013

Jimmy De Sana