Learning about the work that James Hampton did inspired me to create the Resplendent Void series, because it really tells us, as a society, about our own place and how we interact with it.
James Hampton was born in 1909 in South Carolina to Baptist gospel singer James Hampton Sr. and Sarah Johnson. His father left the family and James was left to stay with his older brother Lee until he passed away in 1948. He was drafted into the U.S. Army and was stationed at Saipan and Guam, where he would work in the maintenance of airships. After being awarded a Bronze Star, he would work as a janitor for the General Services Association until his death in 1964.
His work as a janitor would become important to his famous work, since he took advantage of any discarded objects he found. For 14 years, he built a sculpture called The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly which was made from light bulbs, jelly jars, gold and silver foil, chairs, and tables. Specifically, the light bulbs were used to illuminate the stable in which it was sculpted in order to evoke a sense of awe (which it did to the people who discovered it).
Since Hampton came from a religious family, it would later influence how he would create this sculpture. He did consider himself a prophet who claimed to have been in contact with God, Moses, Jesus, and the Virgin Mary; though this contradicted with his outside life as a quiet janitor. This juxtaposition could be a major theme of this sculpture, since contradictions can help establish a unique art style previously unseen.
Casey Cep of the Pacific Standard noted how Hampton had attempted to reinterpret history and religion, which would inspire evolutionary theorist Stephen Jay Gould‘s reinterpretation of history. Hampton did this by placing the words of the Old Testament on the left side and the words from the New Testament on the right.
Religion is the central theme of the Third Heaven, since it is made to represent that “third heaven” that was described in the Bible. While Hampton did not identify by any individual denomination, he did frequent churches of many denominations while in Washington D.C. He himself stylized himself as “St. James.”
Though there is a sense of mystery that is associated with his notebook, since there is the theory that Hampton was “speaking in tongues,” due to his religious nature. As for the Third Heaven, freelancer To Thompson of the Washington Post speculated that since Hampton had served the military during Hiroshima, then the grand sculpture would have been his calling to attract believers and warn unbelievers when Armageddon arrived.
The Third Heaven sculpture remains an fascinating by-product of African-American life in Washington D.C. by continuing to remain as an exhibit in the Smithsonian Museum. While details of Hampton’s life are scant, his work lives after him.
Not only has Stephen Jay Gould be inspired, but the artists such as Ed Kelly, Alice Denney, and others who discovered it after Hampton’s death. The sculpture would not have been relevant had they not been in present in Washington D.C. at the right moment. Harry Lowe, who was the director of the Smithsonian Art Museum, purchased the sculpture from Hampton’s landlord and donated it to the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
What Can We Learn?
When I mentioned at the beginning how Hampton’s artwork told us about our place in society, I was specifically referring to the materials he used in order to make Third Heaven sculpture. Like Robert Rauschenberg, Hampton made use of found objects in order to create a unique piece of art. This would speak to the rest of society that no object is disposable, especially in a current society with environmental awareness of the trash we accumulate. Hampton saw the continued use of found objects before society ever did, which makes one think about how useful outsider artists really are to the rest of society.
Hampton’s sculpture is also a component of African-American cultural life in Washington D.C. Specifically, it reflected the religious life of African-Americans in that era by providing a glimpse of heaven. In this way, art is a reflection of society, as it serves to represent their beliefs, fears, and hopes.
As such, the “menial” professions such as janitors should not be looked upon with barely any recognition, rather they interact with the town or city around them in ways that the average citizen does not. The way that Hampton collected trash as well as negotiated the bums for the foil on their whiskey bottles shows that he interacted with the city by complimenting it by creating this sculpture.