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Hawkins Bolden

American, 20th century.
Born 1914, Memphis, Tennessee; died 2005, Memphis, Tennessee.


Hawkins Bolden was born September 10, 1914, in the Bailey’s Bottom section of Memphis, Tennessee. According to his late sister Elizabeth Williams, “Daddy was a Creole man from Middleton, Tennessee; Mama was an Indian lady from Alabama. Her daddy came as a slave from Africa and married this Indian lady after he was set free. Daddy and Mama had relatives from down in Georgia who talked Geechee (an African American dialect spoken along the Atlantic coast).”

As a child, Hawkins was always playing baseball in the streets or in vacant lots scattered throughout Memphis’ rows of small wooden shacks. One day, with Hawkins catching and brother Monroe at bat, a pitch was thrown high and outside, and catcher Hawkins, crouching, assuming Monroe would not swing, stood up to receive it. But Monroe did swing, and the bat missed the pitch and connected with Hawkins Bolden’s head. Soon after, Hawkins began to suffer seizures. One day, when Hawkins was eight, he collapsed to the ground, landed on his back, and stared up at the sun. He never saw again. “I couldn’t stop looking at the sun,” he says. “I just looked and my eyes went dark. I never did see nothing after that. I can feel things. I know the sunshine. I can feel the heat.”

In 1930, sixteen-year-old Hawkins moved to a small house in midtown Memphis with his family, where he remained until his death in 2005. Bolden must have sensed the gradual changes taking place around him, as his quiet residential neighborhood was incorporated into the Memphis’ downtown commercial center. During his lifetime, Bolden’s backyard was filled with totem-like figures lining his fence and sprouting in his garden. “I started making faces and things out of stuff I found, probably about 1965. One of my nieces said, ‘Put them in your garden to keep the birds out.’ So I guess you can call them things scarecrows.” Bolden’s art is made of whatever littered the Memphis streets and alleyways: plastic milk bottles, tin cans, hubcaps, automobile license plates, wagons, chairs, extension cords, radio wire, teapots, saucepans, and toys. Most of his works are representational, depicting human faces and bodies. Some may be self-portraits. “I use shoe soles and hose pipes and carpet pieces to make tongues,” he says. If there is any color or written inscription on an object, it is totally coincidental: “Sometimes I feel words on something, but I don’t know what it is. I don’t ask nobody about it or about color, neither. I don’t worry about color. I know when I can make something by how it feels.”

A visitor once asked Bolden what he has in mind when he makes a piece for the yard, suggesting that surely he has a reason for doing all this. “Yes sir, I do!” He says emphatically. “The birds be thinking something going to get them. They get scared. They stay away.”

- Phillip March Jones


Selected Exhibitions

2016, Hawkins Bolden: Scarecrows, Shrine, New York

2010, The Museum of Everything, Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli, Turin

2009, MAKE: Hawkins Bolden, Ike Morgan, Judith Scott, Royal Robertson, Ricco/Maresca, New York

1993, Passionate Visions of the American South, New Orleans Museum of Art, New Orleans

1990, Next Generation: Southern Black Aesthetic, Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, Winston-Salem (North Carolina)

Selected Collections

American Folk Art Museum, New York
American Visionary Art Museum, Baltimore
High Museum of Art, Atlanta
Kohler Foundation Inc., Kohler
Museum of Everything, London
Ogden Museum of Southern Art, New Orleans
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.
Souls Grown Deep Foundation, Atlanta

Selected Bibliography

Gómez, Edward, "Nothing to be Scared About," Raw Vision #91, Fall 2016

The Museum of Everything
, exhibition catalogue, Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli & Electa, Turin/Milan, 2010.

Taylor, Kate, "Communicating Across Barriers Few Could Imagine," New York Times, April 16, 2009.

Crown, Carol, and Charles Russell, Sacred and Profane: Voice and Vision in Southern Self-Taught Art, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, 2007.

Gundakar, Gary, and Judith McWillie, No Space Hidden: The Spirit of African American Yard Work, University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, 2005.

Doss, Erika Lee, Coming Home!: Self Taught Artists, the Bible, and the American South, Art Museum at the University of Memphis, TN, 2004.

Russell, Charles, "Hawkins Bolden," Raw Vision, No. 44, Fall 2003.

Arnett, William, "Hawkins Bolden: Insight," Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art of the South, eds. Paul Arnett & William Arnett, Tinwood Books, Atlanta, 2001.

Conwill, Kinshasha, Testimony: Vernacular Art of the American South: The Ronald and Julie Shelp Collection, Harry N. Abrams, New York, 2001.

Gundakar, Grey, ed., Keep Your Head to the Sky: Interpreting African American Home Ground, University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville, 1998.

Yelen, Alice Rae, Passionate Visions of the American South: Self-Taught Artists from 1940 to the Present, New Orleans Museum of Art, New Orleans, 1993.

Next Generation: Southern Black Aesthetic,
exhibition catalogue, Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, Winston-Salen, NC, 1990.
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