James Hampton’s The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly, pictured above, was intended for Christ’s second coming. It is a complex piece with references to various saints, prophets, and biblical characters from the Old and New Testaments (according to the plaque on the wall – I can’t decipher any of this). Although he worked as a janitor for most of his life, Hampton also appointed himself “Director, Special Projects for the State of Eternity.” Clearly, he was a man with great imagination. And drive.
Thornton Dial Sr., a folk artist from Alabama (whose work is unfortunately not on display at the moment), can’t read but he can do. In a New Yorker article he was quoted saying, “It seem like some people believe that, just because I ain’t got no education, say I must be too ignorant for art. Seem like some people always going to value the Negro that way. I believe I have proved that my art is about ideas, and about life, and the experience of the world… I ain’t never been much good at talking about stuff. I always just done the stuff I had a mind to do. My art is my talking.”
I marvel at these self-taught men (the only woman in the room I remember coming across is Grandma Moses, who began painting cheerful country scenes when she was 77). I marvel at their unquestioning compulsion to create something meaningful and beautiful out of nothing.
It’s my third time at the American Art Museum in Washington DC. Curators and collectors such as William Arnett (who ‘discovered’ Thornton Dial Sr. – their relationship is the topic of the New Yorker article entitled “Composition in Black and White” mentioned above) have brought these pieces into museums to share with the public, and I am thankful. It’s inspiring to see works of art that come from the heart and not the head. This makes them no less intelligent and insightful or compelling, and of course I don’t mean to suggest that someone who has studied art isn’t emotionally invested in what they do. But it is the creation of art for its own sake that really fascinates me, human activity that makes no rational sense and has no practical purpose whatsoever, that neither strives for money and acclaim and success nor questions its own validity.
In 1939, 85-year-old Bill Traylor was sitting on a box in downtown Montgomery, drawing people and animals and scenes from his life as a sharecropper when Charles Shannon, a young white painter, ran into him. Shannon was so fascinated by Traylor that he not only painted an eight-foot fresco of him, but also did everything he could to gain national recognition for Traylor’s art. Traylor himself wasn’t even very interested in earning money with his paintings. An article in The Atlantic quoted Shannon saying, “He never agonized over his work… He was very serene. He rarely erased.”
How jealous I am as I agonize over the validity of what I write, over the things that I’ve said and done, the things that I’ve neglected to say or do.
James Hampton’s The Throne wasn’t discovered until after his death in 1964, in a rented garage somewhere in Washington DC. Fourteen years he spent there, covering the used objects he'd collected with aluminum foil. Above the cushioned throne he fashioned to await Christ’s return to earth, the words FEAR NOT glisten. And it is inspiring.