The Revelation of the Folk Artist
James Hampton's 'Throne' Returns in All Its Heavenly Glory

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.

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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