In the Smithsonian Institution’s collection, among masterpieces painted by seminal artists and statues sculptured by the artistic geniuses of their time, is the work of James Hampton, an untrained artist, sculptor, and former employee of the U. S. General Services Administration. By day, this small, soft spoken, talented folk artist labored as a janitor for GSA. At night – in a carriage garage he rented from 1950 to 1964 – he worked in secret creating what he called: The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nation’s Millennium General Assembly. This creation is now a permanent exhibit on display in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American Art in Washington, DC.
The Throne is Hampton’s artistic interpretation of religious themes from the old and new testaments of the Bible. Its structure is made from discarded objects and materials (i.e. old furniture, mirror fragments, scraps of insulation, light bulbs, glass, desk blotters, electrical cables and a variety of other objects) that Hampton found in the streets, in second-hand shops, and in the federal office buildings he worked. He covered the objects and materials in gold and silver colored foil, Kraft paper and plastic, creating a multi element structure that expresses his vision of an alternate reality. The Throne consists of 180 pieces and when displayed in its entirety, the dimensions are 10 1/2 by 27 by 14 ½.
Very little is known about James Hampton the man. What is known is that he was the son of an itinerant Baptist minister and born in the small rural community of Elloree, South Carolina on April 8, 1909. He was one of four children. At the age of 19, with a tenth grade education, Hampton left South Carolina and moved to Washington, DC. For many years he worked as a short-order cook. In 1942, Hampton was inducted into the army and served during World War II with the 385th Aviation Squadron as a carpenter. A year after his discharge from the army in 1945 and his return to Washington, DC, Hampton was hired as a janitor by the agency that would later become the U. S. General Services Administration. Hampton held that position until his death in 1964.
The Throne was discovered by Hampton’s landlord after his death. Unclaimed by his family, but not destroyed by the landlord, two individuals – who have asked to remain anonymous – realized the significance of the work, saved it and donated The Throne to the Smithsonian in 1970.
Hampton’s artistic labor of 14 years – The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nation’s Millennium General Assembly – stands as a testament to the talent and tenacity of an individual and as a permanent and enriching contribution to the world of American folk art.