In a Washington garage, the patron saint of things thrown away created an unlikely masterpiece.
St. James didn’t think of himself as an artist. His intentions went far beyond art. He didn’t think of himself as a "folk" or "outsider" or "grassroots" or "visionary" artist. He didn’t consider himself any of the things scholars have called him since his death in 1964. He didn’t even know what those names meant, not in the way they used them, anyway. "Folk"? That’s what he called his people down in Elloree, South Carolina, where his sister sat on a splintered porch thanking Jesus for the daylight, where the farmland stretched right out to the hem of the sky, where "The Best Pork Barb-B-Que in the World" was made out behind the Stop-N-Go. And "outsider"? Man, that one was easy: every nigger in America.
When he began The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly, a 180-piece sculpture made from the refuse of a dying world, in that old rented garage in northwest Washington, D.C., where poverty could beat your soul into some new shape, where a man might rather put a bullet into you than shake your hand, he never would have imagined that one day it would be displayed in a museum, under fancy lighting, against a backdrop of majestic purple, where a janitor—just like him—would come by at night to dust it.
He built The Throne to prepare the world for the End Time, the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, our Savior, as prophesied in the Revelation. He worked nights as a janitor in various government buildings in the District, mopping floors and singing hymns from his childhood in Elloree, where he first saw the face of God when he was just a boy—not a shadow falling down in a corner or something smoldering at the edge of vision, not a feeling tickling in his spine or cloaking him in the Spirit’s heat, but the real face of God—shining there in front of him one night like an explosion on a drive-in movie screen. It was at that moment that he knew he was chosen, knew he was a saint, knew that he had been granted life, this terrible, beautiful life, to serve God.
James Hampton Jr. arrived in his family’s kitchen in Elloree in 1909, slick and shiny with birth, face aimed skyward, screaming like a true Southern Baptist. He was named after his father, a gospel singer and self-proclaimed Baptist preacher who would later abandon his family (a wife and four children, including James) in the early 1920s to travel through the rural South and preach.
In 1928, at the age of 19, after a childhood of farm work and family and strict religion, James moved to Washington, D.C., to join his older brother, Lee. The city was a new world—bigger, yet somehow claustrophobic, harsher, but beautiful, too, with the great monuments of America rising up into the sky, almost as if they somehow grew right out of the ghetto James and his brother lived in.
For more than a decade, James worked as a short-order cook in various diners around the city, keeping to himself, hearing faint voices, taking prayer breaks instead of smoke breaks, when he took a break at all. At the end of a 12–14 hour day, he walked home, slope-backed and exhausted, past men sleeping in alleys and boys hanging on corners like packs of young wolves; past prostitutes saying, Hey, little man, hey, Jesus, what I got make you see angels, baby. He kept his eyes aimed at the ground—grass sprouting in cracks, cigarettes, bottle caps, a bullet.
He wore his day home with him in a cloud of stink: old vegetables, coffee, meat, grease, garbage. And he could still hear the echoes of clanking dishes and order bells, even in the half-still city night, and somewhere down below all the noise of the world ringing in his head—always ringing in his head—he heard the faint mutterings of God like his own teeth grinding, like his own pulse. He’d shower in the apartment he and Lee shared, read his favorite passages from the Bible—Genesis, the Gospel of John, and Revelation—and sleep the sleep made of hard work. Then he’d get up and do it all over again. Day after day. Month after month. Year after year. The noisy world in his head. And underneath the noise, just underneath it, God.
From 1942 to 1945, James served in the army’s noncombatant 385th Aviation Squadron in Texas, and later in Seattle, Hawaii, Saipan, and Guam. His unit specialized in carpentry and maintenance, and James made (critics speculate) his first piece of The Throne, a small winged object ornately decorated with foil, in 1945 on Guam.
He returned to Washington in 1946, after receiving a Bronze Star and an honorable discharge. He rented a room in a boardinghouse not far from his brother’s apartment. Then he found work with the General Services Administration as a janitor.
After a brief illness, Lee died suddenly in 1948. Lee wasn’t simply James’ brother; he was his best friend, maybe his only friend, and now James, alone but not lonely because he knew all things were a part of His plan, began spending all his time envisioning The Throne.
Some days the low, gray sky would fill up his skull like cotton, and he’d forget everything but God, forget who and where he was, and it was beautiful, this kind of forgetting, but then he’d come to on the street, walking stiff as always, General Services Administration uniform tight and clean around his small frame, and he suddenly had this clarity, he could see despair like a blanket of living, breathing fog over the streets. It was all he could do not to crumble as he headed to work those days, to clean the floors and toilets of the people who ruled the world.
In 1950, at the request of God made in a dream, James rented an abandoned garage on N Street NW from a local merchant, telling him he was working on something that required more space than he had. The garage was down an alley, out of sight from passersby, on a block more dangerous even than his own. It was dark and dusty, with brick walls, concrete floor, and lightbulbs dangling from wires that traveled along creaky ceiling-support beams. Rats scurried in the alley, darting back behind Dumpsters. Spider webs formed misty veils over corners. It was awful. It was perfect. It was exactly where God wanted The Throne to be.
Over the next 14 years, James found a routine. He worked until midnight, mopping floors and picking up trash in government buildings, then went to the garage to do his real work for five or six hours, listening closely to what God was telling him, finally going home to sleep when the pink light of dawn first touched the Washington Monument.
Some afternoons and many weekends, he would visit local used-furniture stores, asking about prices in a voice just above a whisper. If he liked something, he’d return later with a child’s wagon and a pocketful of folded-over one-dollar bills soft and worn as tissue paper. He carted away things that had the merchants scratching their heads: legless tables, drawerless desks, half-crushed doll houses, leaning stools.
Later you might have seen him walking from a government building with a trash bag full of used lightbulbs; or maybe out on the street with a burlap sack, asking bums if he could buy the foil off their wine bottles. He’d dig through Dumpsters to get green glass, sandwich foil, cardboard. And of course the best thing about working for the American government was how wasteful it was, throwing perfectly good material away because someone didn’t like the way it looked. The best thing about cleaning up after the people who ruled the world was that they didn’t see the real value in things.
Occasionally after long hours of work, after a faceful of government cleaning chemicals and toxic solvents, his brains felt like Jell-O bumping up against his skull, and bits of time disappeared like old pennies. But other days everything was sharp and sensible. On these days of clarity, James, Saint James, turned into God’s lightning rod, a cipher for the Word. When he had these days of clarity, of vision, that’s when he knew the world was ignoring God and His commandments, knew the End Time was near. Six million Jews, God’s chosen people, exterminated. He could barely get his head around that one. And in his own neighborhood, a murder almost every day. Stealing. Lying. Coveting another man’s woman like it was some kind of game. The list of human cruelties would take you a million lifetimes to recite.
So St. James wrote 10 new commandments for the world. But he wrote them in his own invented language, a series of loops and cursive-looking shapes that occasionally resembled letters.
He had built a stage in the back of the garage on which to set some of the pieces. On the larger objects, he put rusty metal casters so he could move them to just the right spot. Everything was perfectly symmetrical, had to be, because St. James was remaking time. That’s right, remaking time. Not just representing time as told in the Bible, he was replicating it with trash. You can see it if you look.
On the right is the story of the Old Testament, of Moses and the Law; on the left is the history of Jesus and Grace, the way to salvation.
St. James understood that the time of God, the only time, was cyclical, always returning. No thing, no event, was pointless. Life repeated. It was right there in Ecclesiastes: "The sun ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose. . . . The thing that hath been it is that which shall be; and that which is done, is that which shall be done." Death simply meant rebirth and a new, more glorious life in Heaven, where you would be reunited with all things lost, with Lee and your father and some of the men from the 385th who had died since the war. If you placed your faith in Jesus, if you truly believed, you were not just a poor man alone in the city among the poor, toiling in a poorly lit garage, babbling to a brick wall; you were not just a janitor, a forgotten vet scraping by. Your life mattered now and forever. You actually mattered.
He worked. He wrapped bottles and jelly jars and lightbulbs with gold and silver foil, which he got from wine bottles and imported beer bottles and cigarette cartons and boxes of aluminum wrap. He used the tops of coffee cans for bases. He mounted upside-down drawers on cheap glass vases, wrapped them in foil. He trimmed the edges of a sawed-in-half table with government electrical cable before covering it all in gold foil. He used kraft paper and cardboard for angels’ wings, used carpet rolls to support the greatest weight. He used glue and nails and pins, and sometimes he wrapped an object in layers of foil until it was exactly the right size and shape.
And then there was the throne itself, the centerpiece of the structure, an old, red, plush chair bought secondhand. He gave it gold wings and put it up high, a seat for the coming Savior. He gave it a high back—four feet, five feet?—of wooden shapes and smaller cardboard wings and bulbs of silver and gold. He named objects for saints and tacked his walls with biblical quotes and a picture of Lee, who was now, God told him, an angel living inside his body. At the top of it all, this expanse that filled the entire back of a cold, damp garage at the end of a dark alley in one of the roughest neighborhoods in Washington, D.C., were the words Fear Not.
St. James left the earth before he was ready, before he was finished, even though he once told the merchant he rented the garage from, "[The Throne] is my life. I’ll finish it before I die." He had been working on it in the garage for 14 years, thinking about it perhaps forever, and he wasn’t done. He had had stomach cancer for some time, though it had only recently been diagnosed at the free clinic for World War vets. He refused to believe he was dying. It wasn’t his time yet. He worked on The Throne up to the very end, and the work eased the pain in his gut.
Death kept St. James from knowing so many things about his Throne. Like just after his death when the merchant brought a reporter named Ramon Geremia from The Washington Post to look at it in the garage, where he poked at it and picked things up and probably didn’t quite put them back in the right spot, thus slightly altering the entire history of time. And he never got to read the story, which ran under the headline "Tinsel, Mystery Are Sole Legacy of Lonely Man’s Strange Vision" on December 15, 1964. And he didn’t get to see the filmmaker out there either, the guy with the Beatles haircut telling everyone in the local art community what an amazing thing The Throne was and how a little black janitor with absolutely no friends and an unknown history had made it over many years. He never got to know that critics would write about his life and work, comparing him to people and movements of which he’d never heard. But most of all, he never got to see The Throne sparkling amidst a field of purple in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, never got to stand on those marble floors in his best Sunday suit, his St. James crown glittering on his head, and be proud of what he’d made using nothing but belief and thrown-away things.
James Hampton's masterpiece is currently on loan from the Smithsonian American Art Museum to the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center in Williamsburg, Virginia. Greg Bottoms is the author of a short-story collection, Sentimental, Heartbroken Rednecks (Context, 2001) and the memoir Angelhead: My Brother's Descent Into Madness (Three Rivers, 2000). He lives in Virginia. From Creative Nonfiction (#17). Subscriptions: $29.29/yr. (4 issues) from 5501 Walnut St., Suite 202, Pittsburgh, PA 15232.