By Kit-Bacon Gressitt
Book lovers often try to find the authors hidden in fictional works, guessing which characters most resemble their creators. Other books lay their authors bare, their raw experiences revealed with hope — for understanding, compassion, shared enlightenment.
It is the latter that motived author, artist and former San Diego LGBT community member Jody Sims to write and illustrate “Sanctuary.” Her new book is a sequel to “Soul Provider,” a 2014 Nautilus Book Awards Silver Winner in the grieving category.
Sims has had much to grieve.
After her life partner sustained a traumatic brain injury in an automobile accident, Sims was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. Together, they struggled to heal, but recovery can be elusive and economically disastrous.
“Soul Provider” reflects Sims’ emotional trauma during that period. Her paintings reproduced in the book are dark and sorrowful, a tone balanced by Sims’ text, which seeks insight and renewal.
While both Sims and her partner progressed toward health, the economics of their situation required them to relocate. They settled in Knoxville, Tennessee, near Sims’ parents. But the sanctuary they sought was still out of reach. Sims parents died within five months of each other — and Tennessee is not generally known for its progressive culture.
“You go to the grocery store and you see Confederate flags everywhere and it’s unsettling,” Sims said. “It’s like how it was maybe 30 years ago in California. So many people are still in the closet. It’s shocking.”
As challenging as their new situation was, Sims discovered a neighbor of sorts that posed an additional challenge: The Gentle Barn, a large and small animal rescue program that she and her partner became involved with.
Through providing treatment and love to abused and unwanted animals, The Gentle Barn forced Sims to focus on the positive. The program helped everything from cows to chickens to pigs, including Dudley, a steer that lost a foot, and through the program, received a prosthesis.
Sims discovered and painted messages she gleaned from the animals’eown will to survive and they became the nexus for “Sanctuary.”
In one illustration and accompanying text in “Sanctuary,” Sims urges the reader to have courage, like the rescued pig: “Be the light that helps others see.”
In another, an elderly goat bears the message, “If you can be anything, be kind.”
In yet another, “Love is the language all animals understand,” Sims represents her own family in a painting of two hens: “I want people to know that they are two females in love. This is my message about equality, diversity, acceptance.”
Despite never having really taken to animals, the creatures in Sims’ artwork provided the inspiration she needed to continue her journey.
“I was never an animal person, really. Now I think more than anything, I empathize with them,” she said. “It’s all about empathy. It’s about suffering. And this horrible way we treat each other in the world, animals are a way for us to awaken to what we’re doing and not doing, and how we could heal the world.”
Sims’ paintings in “Sanctuary” illustrate the healing she has experienced. The images have a decidedly lighter tone than those in her first book. Some are playful — even joyful — and the text reflects the animals’ stories and contentment they find in the nurturing environment of the rescue program.
The book also reflects Sims’ new state of mind, some resolution found in a perfectly imperfect life.
“Looking back, I can see that I’ve come far. I have!” she said. “The biggest thing is I’ve gotten in touch with my art. I think of myself as an artist now. I really speak through my art in these books. But I kid that I have to have some angst in my life in order to be an artist. I have many moments of happiness though, like when I’m painting, I’m happy. But I’m not the same person I was five years ago. Being a cancer survivor, sometimes it’s like waiting for the other shoe to drop. So there’s this little bit of a cloud, at least for me.”
While there might always be a cloud or two, Sims’ story is one of self-healing and compassion, inspired by the rescued animals found in her paintings. The book’s message is simple and clear: Sims hopes that her readers will understand these creatures represent all sentient beings, how we treat one another, and ideally what we could become.
“I see myself in these animals — in all animals — our vulnerability,” Sims said. “These animals are me. We are all seeking love, compassion and sanctuary.”
From the dark stages of grief for what Sims and her partner lost, emerges a lighter-hearted quest for the future in “Sanctuary.” After all, if a three-footed steer can survive, find love, and thrive, why not the rest of us?
Learn more about Sims and her books jodysims.com or follow her on facebook.com by searching for Jody Sims: Artist, Author, Survivor. To learn more about Dudley and The Gentle Barn, visit bit.ly/2hNB6U5.
To read Gay San Diego’s 2014 story about Jody’s first book, “Soul Survivor: Conversations with my cat,” visit bit.ly/2hldMQF.
— Kit-Bacon Gressitt formerly wrote for the North County Times. She currently writes commentary and essays on her blog ExcuseMeImWriting.com and is a founding editor of WritersResist.com. She also hosts Fallbrook’s monthly Writers Read authors series and open mic. Reach her at email@example.com.