A Visionary Whose Work Nearly Vanished (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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A Visionary Whose Work Nearly Vanished

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:08
Welcome back to "Metro Connection." I'm Rebecca Sheir. And today, we're losing things, we're finding things and in the case of this next story, we're doing a little bit of both.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:17
Okay. First, can I say, wow?

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:21
We're at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in D.C.'s Penn Quarter with Kim Bender. You might remember her from a story we did a little while back about secret tunnels underneath DuPont Circle. Anyway, Kim writes the blog, "The Location."

MS. KIM BENDER

00:00:34
It's a blog about preservation, our design around Washington D.C.

SHEIR

00:00:38
And today we're visiting the museum's folk art gallery and gazing upon an art installation.

SHEIR

00:00:43
Let's walk a little closer and take a look because this is blowing my mind.

SHEIR

00:00:47
That was 14 years in the making.

BENDER

00:00:50
It's pretty amazing and I think when you see it from afar, it almost looks like you could be in a church and this is, you know, the shrine. But as you get closer and you realize a little bit more about what's it made of, that's when it starts to get interesting.

SHEIR

00:01:06
And we'll get to what it's made of in just a moment, but the first thing you should know is the work itself, it's pretty grand. It's set up in this raised alcove pretty much big enough to fit a UPS truck and the name...

BENDER

00:01:19
The Throne of The Third Heaven of the Nation's Millennium General Assembly.

SHEIR

00:01:24
Well, that's pretty grand, too. The actual throne, which bears the words Fear Not up at the top is just one of 180 items originally comprising the masterpiece, each one simmering in hues of silver and gold, many of them sprouting glittering wings like angels. One side of the exhibit represents the Old Testament, the other side the New and the throne itself is right in the middle. So what you see is this nearly symmetrical display of sparkling crowns, tablets, tables, pulpits, all laid out to create this, well, this shrine.

BENDER

00:01:58
I call it a shrine. I'm not really sure what you would call it. The folks at the Smithsonian call it The Hampton Throne, after its creator, James Hampton, a South Carolina native whose dad was an itinerant, self-ordained Baptist minister and gospel singer. And it's clear from history that James...

BENDER

00:02:14
He called himself, St. James, director for Special Projects for the State of Eternity.

SHEIR

00:02:20
...had some serious religious and spiritual leanings himself.

BENDER

00:02:23
He thought that he had actual visitations from God. I think he believed he was visited by Moses, he saw the Virgin Mary over Washington D.C.

SHEIR

00:02:32
Where he'd moved, by the way, at age 19 and years later he created The Hampton Throne as a testament to his faith. But here's the thing, James Hampton's grand masterpiece, well, it isn't made of very grand stuff.

SHEIR

00:02:46
He's doing it with all of these find items, I mean, broken light bulbs, tape, tacks, pins, flower vases, jelly jars.

BENDER

00:02:54
And some of the pieces are only held together by the fact that the foil is held tight.

SHEIR

00:03:00
In other words, in Hampton's Throne, all that glitters is not gold or silver for that matter. It's actually recycled metallic foil.

BENDER

00:03:09
He would pay people in his neighborhood, indigent drunks, he would basically pay them for the foil from their wine.

SHEIR

00:03:17
Wow. And speaking of wow, it's jaw-dropping enough just to stroll into the folk art gallery and encounter Hampton's masterpiece. Now, imagine stumbling upon this spectacle after going through a door you hadn't opened in 14 years. Because that was precisely what happened to a guy by the name of Myer Wurtleaf (sp?) .

SHEIR

00:03:37
See, after James Hampton served as an army carpenter in World War II, he came back to D.C. and worked as a night janitor at the General Services Administration and as Kim Bender tells it, in 1950, Hampton started renting this garage, this warehouse from Myer Wurtleaf in Northwest D.C. right around where the Convention Center stands today.

BENDER

00:03:57
Wurtleaf had received diligently $50.00 a month rent for 14 years from James Hampton and one day the rent stopped coming in November of 1964. and he discovered that Mr. Hampton had died. When he opened the warehouse, I guess when he unlocked it, he discovered this and I think he realized that this was this man's entire life's work.

BENDER

00:04:20
He was quoted in The Washington Post as saying, "You can't just destroy something a man devoted himself to for 14 years. It seems to be an example of the futility of life." So he was really moved by this. I find it hard to imagine that anybody could see it and not be moved by it and he contacted reporters and tried to get some attention to see if somebody would take it. And it -- he did get some reporters to write some articles and it caused a little scene and then eventually a Smithsonian curator was tipped off about it. And the curator, whose name was Harry Lowe, came down to the warehouse and checked it and managed to, after some work, to get taken by the Smithsonian.

SHEIR

00:05:05
Do we know if James Hampton had any artistic background growing up? Was he really good at arts and crafts?

BENDER

00:05:09
I know. I think that's what inspired me the most about this. It seemed that his full travel experiences in life and his worldliness came from maybe his travels during World War II. it doesn't appear that he ever visited any cathedrals or maybe in books he saw the art that this seems to be inspired by. Because if you look around the folk art gallery, I mean, I love folk art and I think it's amazing and what speaks to me about folk art it's not coming from a place of so much of formal education. It's like from the soul almost.

BENDER

00:05:46
This almost appears like it came from years of formal education and when you stand back further, when you can't see the actual foil you would think that we're in a religious museum, you know, that this is an exhibit of religious art and I love this quote, this is my favorite quote that I found. Can I read it to you?

SHEIR

00:06:04
Absolutely.

BENDER

00:06:05
So this was from a reporter, Sarah Bue Conroy wrote, "Hampton should've been born in Peru with the silver and gold of the country and the support of the Catholic Church or in middle Europe in the days of the great cathedral builders with the majesty of Rome to sustain him. Then he could've carved his vision out of fruitwood, glided it with gold leaf, ornamented it with sterling silver, topped it with gold." Because that's what it really seems like. He's a man out of time. He should've been born somewhere else at a different time.

BENDER

00:06:38
He didn't have very many friends, if any, and he would go work at the GSA as a janitor and then he would come home at midnight and work for four to six hours every night on this and to be so devoted to something that you believe is going, like, change your salvation and educate other people and help them. And that was his life's work, I mean, that's -- was his singular for over 14 years, his singular reason for being and critic Robert Hughes of Time magazine wrote that the Throne may well be the first work of visionary religious art produced by an American. I think that's pretty amazing.

SHEIR

00:07:20
Well, Kim Bender, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today.

BENDER

00:07:24
Thank you for coming and checking out this masterpiece with me.

SHEIR

00:07:31
Kim Bender writes the blog, "The Location." We have a link to her article about James Hampton on our website, metroconnection.org. And while you're there, you can find all sorts of other stuff pertaining to The Throne of The Third Heaven of the Nation's Millennium General Assembly, including photographs, a link to a time-lapse video of the Throne's installation at the Smithsonian, even some links to music inspired by the masterpiece. Again, it's all at metroconnection.org
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