Posted on 02/20/2020 at 09:43 AM by Blog Experts
Recently I read The Seventh Most Important Thing by Shelley Pearsall. It’s a teen novel about Arthur, who threw a brick at the head of the Junk Man because he was wearing his recently deceased father’s hat. The Judge wanted Arthur to spend the rest of his teen years in juvie. The Junk Man intervened, requesting that Arthur instead serve 120 hours of community service helping him. He left a rusty shopping cart for Arthur in order to collect the “seven most important things” from other people’s trash: glass bottles, foil, cardboard, pieces of wood, lightbulbs, coffee cans, and mirrors. Eventually, Arthur discovers what the Junk Man is doing with the seven most important things, and he is in total awe, as was I when I learned in the end pages that the author based this book on a real artist, James Hampton.
James Hampton was born in Elloree, SC on April 8, 1909. Elloree was a small, impoverished community of mostly African-American sharecroppers. His father was a self-ordained Baptist preacher and gospel singer who believed this work to be more important than taking care of his wife and four children, whom he abandoned. James had little formal education, and moved to Washington, DC around the age of 19 to live with an older brother. No one knows what he did between 1928 and 1939, other than that he began having religious visions at the age of 22. He worked as a short-order cook from 1939 to 1942. He then served with the 385th Aviation Squadron, a segregated unit, in Texas, Seattle, Hawaii, Saipan, and Guam during World War II.
After his honorable discharge in 1945, Hampton became a janitor for the General Services Administration. Not much is known about Hampton, as he mostly kept to himself and had few friends. He lived alone in a small apartment in a row house in northwest Washington, DC. He rented a garage, which was originally a 19th-century stable, that was unheated and poorly lit. For at least fourteen years, beginning in 1950, Hampton worked on an elaborate sculptural piece using the “seven most important things” listed above. He titled his sculpture, The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly. The sculpture can be seen here: https://americanart.si.edu/artwork/throne-third-heaven-nations-millennium-general-assembly-9897. It’s possible he began making pieces for his sculpture as early as 1931, and it’s known he did make one piece while in Guam. This is a small, shrine-like object that was placed in front of the center pulpit.
Hampton worked on his sculpture almost every day until his death from cancer in 1964. A few neighbors and the owner of the garage had occasionally seen some of Hampton’s work. The sculpture wasn’t discovered by the general public, however, until after his death, and it is likely Hampton never got to finish it. Hampton referred to himself as St. James, and it seems the sculpture was a testament to his faith, his religious visions, and particularly the book of Revelations from the Bible.
To create the sculpture, Hampton wrapped and glued silver and gold aluminum foil over pieces of wood furniture, cardboard, glass, paper, and plastic. He covered some of the surfaces with purple craft paper or pieces of green desk blotters. The pieces within the sculpture resemble altars, pulpits, offertory tables, and bishop’s chairs. The arrangement is symmetrical, and on the left side are objects related to the Old Testament, while on the right are objects based on the New Testament. He recorded all his activity in notebooks using an undeciphered script made up of letters that look similar to those of some Semitic and Asian languages. Even with the help of computers, the writing still has not been able to be interpreted. Mark Stamp (in Cep, 2017) found 42 distinct symbols in Hampton’s writing, but was only able to conclude that perhaps Hampton’s writing is the equivalent to speaking in tongues.
After Hampton’s death, private patrons acquired the work and stored it at the National Museum of American Art. In 1970, they donated it to the museum. Since 1971, the sculpture was featured in eight major exhibitions in the US, four long-term installations at the NMAA, and in numerous publications related to folk art, Afircan-American art, modern sculpture, religion, and psychiatry. In 2006, the sculpture was the first piece to be reinstalled in the newly renovated wing of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The sculpture fills a 17 x 17 foot space. In the center is a throne, and at the top of the throne is a banner that reads, Fear Not. Because of space, not all of the pieces could be installed. For example, there were two displays of the Ten Commandments in the original work, that just didn’t fit in the allotted space at the Smithsonian.
Hampton’s work paved the way to a better understanding of American art, and his work in the museum is positioned as one of America’s most important artists. “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” (Weeks, 2005).
Cep, C. (2017). Cracking the code of James Hampton’s private language. Retrieved from https://psmag.com/social-justice/cracking-code-james-hamptons-private-language-96278
Leininger-Miller, T. (2000). Hampton, James. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1093/anb/9780198606697.article.1701471
Pearsall, S. (2016). The seventh most important thing. Yearling.
Smithsonian American Art Museum. (2020). James Hampton. Retrieved from https://americanart.si.edu/artist/james-hampton-2052
Smithsonian American Art Museum. (2020). The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly. Retrieved from https://americanart.si.edu/artwork/throne-third-heaven-nations-millennium-general-assembly-9897
Umberger, L. (2019). The transformative vision of James Hamption. Epidemiology and Psychiatric Sciences, 28(5), pp. 478-480.
Weeks, L. (2005). The Revelation of the Folk Artist; James Hamption’s ‘Throne’ Returns in All Its Heavenly Glory. Retrieved from