The work of the American outsider artist William L. Hawkins is the subject of a major traveling retrospective.
When it comes to outsider artists—otherwise known as folk artists, self-taught artists, vernacular artists, or any other number of terms that are used to describe creators with no connection to the traditional artistic establishment—one of the traits so many seem to share is a peculiarly strong drive to create. They feel compelled to compile cast-off materials and shape them into something new, to describe the world they see or imagine in visual terms, whether through painting, drawing, assemblage, or collage. For William L. Hawkins, the Columbus, Ohio-based self-taught artist who died in 1990, this need translated into a lifetime of creating bold, expressionistic paintings of landscapes, cityscapes, and animals, both extant and extinct.
This work is the subject of a broad-ranging retrospective exhibition titled “William L. Hawkins: An Imaginative Geography,” which will be on view at the Mingei International Museum in San Diego from June 9–September 3. It includes pieces from every phase of Hawkins’ existing body of work, which spans roughly 10 years (although he created art throughout his long life), and offers examples from each of his favorite thematic areas. The show was originated by the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, Iowa, and the Columbus Museum of Art in Columbus, Ohio.
Hawkins was born in 1895 in Kentucky and grew up on his grandmother’s farm with his brother. The natural world and the animals that lived in it formed an important backdrop during his youth. Hawkins and his brother were responsible for caring for the livestock on the farm, and they shared a strong connection with the animals they raised, cared for, and sold or slaughtered. When he was 21, in 1916, Hawkins left the farm for Columbus and never looked back. He had only a third-grade education, and no formal art training. During World War I he served in the military, then worked in a steel-casting factory, and relentlessly, continuously practiced his art.
Hawkins said he was “born an artist,” but his first known attempts at art-making—as an adult, that is, as he drew as a hobby throughout his childhood—were actually to help supplement his income. During the Depression, he began scavenging cast-off materials, including pieces of wood, that he would paint on with sign-painter’s paint. He sold these pieces to friends and neighbors for small amounts of money, managing to make art pay even when he was just starting his artistic journey. Even in his later years, when he was showing his art in New York and Columbus galleries and placing pieces in museums, Hawkins looked at his work as something with which to make a living and not by any means as art for art’s sake.
Hawkins was “discovered” in 1981 when he befriended the sculptor Lee Garrett, a young artist who had recently moved to the neighborhood where Hawkins lived and heard about him and his work from an acquaintance. Garrett was astonished by Hawkins’ paintings and encouraged him to enter some pieces in the 1982 Ohio State Fair. One of these, Atlas Building #2, took home the first prize in the professional category, although it had been entered in the amateur category.
After that, Hawkins quickly ascended to national prominence in the art world. That same year, he mounted his first gallery show at the Ohio Gallery in Columbus, and in the following year, 1983, he came to be represented by the Ricco Johnson Gallery (now the Ricco/Maresca Gallery) in New York. Museums also started acquiring his work. From the Columbus Museum of Art to the American Folk Art Museum, both regional and national institutions quickly became interested in this self-taught artist, who often used nothing but oil enamel and one single paintbrush on Masonite to create his bold and unusual paintings.
What is remarkable about the pieces in this particular exhibition is the range they display, even though they span only a decade or so. For example, visitors will see eight of the nine known versions of the Last Supper that Hawkins created. They will see not only his well-known paintings but also drawings, assemblages, a rare freestanding sculpture, and some of the equipment he used to create his art, as well.
That’s not to mention an item that true Hawkins aficionados will no doubt be interested in: the artist’s famous suitcase, in which he kept the magazine clippings, photographs, and other scavenged visual items that he called his “research.” He would pore over these images studiously, sometimes incorporating them as collage into his works, and sometimes using them as inspiration for a painting.
Hawkins’ place in the American art world has been firmly established for 40 years, but until now, what his work means in terms of its broad, overarching effects on outsider art and contemporary American art in general has not been studied. With this major retrospective, that lack is now being remedied.
By Elizabeth Pandolfi