The Revelation of the Folk Artist

Wayne Boone packs up after helping reinstall the foil-covered work at the American Art Museum, which reopens next year.
Wayne Boone packs up after helping reinstall the foil-covered work at the American Art Museum, which reopens next year. (By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 10, 2005

Sisters and brothers! We are gathered here today to sing of "The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly"! And when you refer to it, praise be, speak with the awe and with the reverence it deserves.

For this, my friends, is truly a most inspired and wondrous work of folk art -- pulpits and altar and oddly shaped stands fashioned from pieces of furniture and cardboard and light bulbs and tin cans and meticulously -- most ingeniously -- wrapped in silver and gold foil.

Seriously. So majestic, so mighty and bright is this vast, multi-element vision by the late James Hampton that the Smithsonian American Art Museum has carved out a special, eggplant-colored niche in its renovated space to showcase the whole display -- well, most of it. Following a 6 1/2 -year renovation of the museum at Eighth and F streets NW -- with a planned re-opening on July 1, 2006 -- Hampton's "Throne" was chosen as the first work to be reinstalled.

The unpacking of this unwieldy conglomeration was an art in itself. It took four days and four or more people. They finished yesterday. Project manager Jim Rubinstein and object conservator Helen Ingalls watched over a handful of dexterous art handlers, led by Craig Pittman, who lifted pieces from cardboard boxes and arranged them. Some portions weighed 70 or 80 pounds.

"Be careful!" Ingalls said as the workers hoisted one of the ornate pieces. "It's heavy and there's no place to hold it." Ingalls has been working with the "Throne" for years. She has vacuumed it and polished it. And she has dreamed about it.

Cleaning the whole extravaganza is particularly dicey, she said, because there is so much foil and it is so brittle. "Spit works best."

For much of the time that the museum has been closed for renovation, the work has been on display at the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum in Williamsburg.

A couple of small things shifted or broke off during the move back home, but Ingalls knew how to repair them. She repositioned one tightly wrapped protuberance and reconnected a piece that was stapled to particle board.

Working so closely with the materials has given the handlers -- who wore blue rubber gloves and no shoes -- a chance to see how the fragile masterpiece was made. "You can tell what he was eating," Pittman said, referring to a can of fruit that Hampton used in the crafting of his monument.

A monument it is and a monument it was designed to be. Born in Elloree, S. C. -- just south of Columbia -- in 1909, Hampton came to Washington as a young man. According to literature about the artist, Hampton was a small and quirky man. He wore glasses and had few friends. He never married. He lived alone. He worked a few odd jobs, then served in the Army during World War II in a noncombat unit, doing construction work and taking care of airstrips. Maybe it was there that he developed his sense of design and a taste for symmetry.

It was in 1946 that Hampton was hired by the General Services Administration as a custodian. He had already begun working out his vision of a monument to the Kingdom of God in this city of monuments. For more than 14 years, Hampton labored solo, mostly at night. He rented a brick garage near Seventh and N streets NW. And there he brought his visions to life.

Using stuff he found during the day -- jelly jars, construction paper, mirrors, desk blotters, acetate sheets and whatever else he could lay his hands on -- Hampton built a panorama of some 180 odd pieces, some of them very odd.

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