Years ago when I sold art supplies, I came across pictures and a short description of one work of art that always inspires and humbles me. It has become a lodestone of sorts, a compass pointing in me in the direction of devotion to vision and to craft, and away from superficial distractions.
That work, just barely glimpsed above, in it's original installation in the artist's renting garage, is The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nation's Millennium General Assembly by James Hampton.
By all accounts, Hampton was an unassuming man, a WWII era veteran, who returned stateside to work as a janitor in Federal buildings in D.C. . A lifelong bachelor, from a religious southern black family, descriptions of him by contemporaries sound like descriptions of recently apprehended serial killers. "Quiet," "Nice," these are the words that neighbors and coworkers would use to describe him. But secretly he was someone else. Yet instead of being the diabolical fiend, we might conjure up with images of such a loner... he was something else indeed...
Mr. Hampton created this installation, driven by what he perceived to be mystical visions, crafted out of detritus of modern life he gathered as a janitor. Much of the gilding and silver-plating you think you see on the surface of this work is in fact the foil inner wrapping of cigarette packs...
The Throne has for sometime rightly been on display at the Smithsonian. I first came across it in a book on contemporary African-American art. Many commentators regard it as Outsider art, citing Hampton's lack of involvement with the Art community overtly, and implicity referencing his mystical visions and religious motivation. Personally, I think all these attempts at categorization are limiting and ghetto-izing.
Like Notre Dame or Ankor Watt, the Throne is a great work of art. Simply taken on it's own. The fact that this is one man's lifework, using that phrase with a specificity which is rare in this day age, is only more awe-inspiring.