Annual Outsider Art Fair Post 2017. Hawkins Bolden Garden of African-American Outsider Art Sculpture
Mr. Bolden's make-do scarecrows have attracted attention from collectors (and some scholars) for many years now…but you don't really need a scarecrow unless you have a garden. If you ever wondered what a blind man's garden might look like, this is it. Years had passed since he laid it out and surrounded it with muscular figures, somehow, from his mind's eye. The only eyes Bolden had were taken from him as a child while playing in Memphis, TN.
Like the figures for which Bolden has become known, the garden is tactile as much as visual…and each piece was placed by the artist. Don't expect any precise lines. This garden was laid out by hand, not sight or surveyor…and by an artist feeling for proper placement with his hands alone. No taut line of string and chalk to follow. As such, Mr. Bolden's garden has more than a little in common with the abstract and varying panels of an African-American improvisational quilt. Seen from above, it might have appeared to be a quilt made from scraps, but in rusted steel.
Quilts from Signs and Symbols: African Images in African-American Quilts - Maude Southwell Wahlman, Penguin: 1993. Sourced HERE
But is it imbued with more? Hawkins Bolden (and his sister) were born on the same day in 1914. Why is this relevant? It places his youth only a lifetime from the Civil War and 50 years before the Civil Rights Act. Scholars of African-American art might think it possible he retained deep-rooted African esthetics and meaning, blind or not. Subconscious or not. Historical, psychological and tenacious attempts to hold on to traditions left behind.
Can a blind man play the blues? Yes…if he has them.
Or is it no deeper than a man wanting to make something he could. Not black, not white, but simply an anomaly? Are the figures "art" only when recognized as such by collectors and removed from the original environment and presented on a white wall?
His own explanations for the scarecrows were tossed off and lighthearted…but then would Mr. Bolden have learned decades before that African-American men were taught to avoid boasting by the dominant white culture? Did he learn to dismiss his art with humor and deflection as a survival technique? He lived in a state which did not even allow interracial marriage until 1967. A state which begrudgingly gave in but still retains the law on their books.
How can one ask an artist who has never seen his own work what it means?
Note the rudimentary stakes. Each has some shape or form which makes it more than a simple pole. Old handles, nozzles and angular forms of industrial purpose. Salvage and scrap, but made to live again. Several of Mr. Bolden's masks and figures line the area. One piece consists of the discarded base to an electric fan. It has been given eyes and a long, soggy tongue (or beard?) made of carpet. Imagine that…a sculpture given eyes by a blind man. A larger piece on the other side of the property hangs adorned with rags for straw hair.
At the 2016 Outsider Art Fair, the SHRINE GALLERY created an installation recreating the garden. Photo Credit Claire Voon for Hyperallergic used with permission.
It is fraught…or even indulgent to speculate about Mr. Bolden's sculpture. Who are we to understand this place while only we can see? It took a fairly sophisticated sighted person to appreciate the work while wandering home from a tavern. I hesitate to use "saved" as the original environment is gone…but wide open (if bleary) eyes recognized this place was profound. Mr. Bolden leaves us with instruction to see clearly but that sometimes mystery and wonder is all we can know.. Even a glance is precious and a gift we should not take for granted.
Dull Tool Dim Bulb runs an annual post relevant to the Outsider Art Fair. Previous posts over the years include Sister Gertrude Morgan, Basil Merrett, Nyla Thompson, Asa Moore, Justin McCarthy and more…search for "outsider art" in the blog's search box.
See also Claire Voon review of the 2016 Outsider Art Fair HERE Shrine Gallery is HERE
See also the film MAKE by Malcom Hearn which shows the artist at work. Available HERE
William Arnett article on Hawkins Bolden HERE at the Souls Grown Deep site.
Hawkins Bolden Environment photos by Jim Linderman 1994. Books and ebooks by the author on folk art and photography HERE