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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)

Here and there you find labels referring to Hampton's otherworldly visions and interpretations of history. "It is true," Hampton wrote, "that Adam, the first man God created, appeared in person on January 20, 1949 . . . this was on the day of President Truman's inauguration."

The Virgin Mary and the star of Bethlehem appeared in Washington in 1946, he wrote. And Moses was here in 1931. He referred to himself as Saint James. He had the focus and the fortitude of an Old Testament prophet: janitor by day, Jeremiah by night.

At the center of the installation is a burgundy-cushioned chair with a seven-foot-tall back panel and wings. Fanning out from the throne are tall hat-stand-looking things, pulpits, tributes to Elisha and Moses, and lots of other startling and strange articles of faith. In its full-blown glory, it fills a space that is 17 feet by 17 feet. At the top of the throne is a two-word exhortation: FEAR NOT.

Some parts of the installation -- such as two displays of the Ten Commandments -- will not be included because there just is not enough room, says the museum's chief curator, Eleanor Harvey.

"It is a piece that hits at the heart of why people make art in the first place," Harvey says. "It's because they feel compelled to make it, they have a passion to make it, they have a message and they have a desire to work with their hands to bring their expression to life."

Upon seeing the piece in the early 1970s, art critic Robert Hughes wrote that the "Throne" "may be the finest work of visionary religious art produced by an American."

Though a few people knew that Hampton was constructing his vision in the dank little garage, the world didn't learn about the shimmering chimera until after Hampton's death in November 1964.

The objects were found pushed against a wall. No one is really sure how they should be arranged, but there is an apparent logic -- everything about Jesus and the New Testament is on one side; everything about Moses and the Old Testament on the other. And that's the way the museum handles it.

And no one really knows what to make of this extraordinary creation. It's easy to forget that in the ambitious arrhythmia of a city filled with folks who think they are the most important and self-reliant people in the world, there is true inspiration all around. Granite obelisks and gargantuan memorials. A world-class library and graceful bridges. There is great art here -- works that lift our spirits, light our way and move us to greater deeds.

Hampton was inspired -- without renown or recompense -- to create such a masterpiece. He took the mundane and made it monumental. He turned the found into profound. With a little money, a little madness and a lot of imagination, brothers and sisters, James Hampton created a concrete tribute on Earth to his idea of an eternity in Heaven.

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