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Constellations of Art Telling the Story of America: A Conversation with Leslie Umberger

Leslie Umberger, Curator of Folk and Self-taught Art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., has been interested in art and history for as long as she can remember.

While attending the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, she became critical of the established art world’s emphasis on the achievement of commercial success. “I realized that, in art schools, the endeavor of art was commuted into a competitive business rather than a creative or cultural act. I began to think a lot about the power of artistic creations that had not been so diffused by a larger society, and decided to turn my attention to untrained or traditionally trained artists. As an art historian I first began to study tribal and folk artists, and later focused more specifically on self-taught artists and builders of art environments.”

Since 2012, Leslie has channeled her enthusiasm for these art forms into her curatorial responsibilities at The Smithsonian American Art Museum, an institution with a strong track record of recognizing folk and untrained art when many others did nott. It was one of the first general museums to champion folk art by giving it space – and therefore recognition – in a world class venue.

It all started with the acquisition of The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly by James Hampton (1909-1964).

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The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly

This intriguing multi-piece devotional alter was created over the course of at least 14 years during the evening and weekend hours that Hampton was not working at his janitorial job in a federal building in Washington, D.C. Hampton, who referred to himself as “Director, Special Projects for the State of Eternity,” was a World War II veteran and a deeply religious man originally from South Carolina. He may have considered himself a prophet, naming a collection of his writings “St. James: The Book of the Seven Dispensation,” which was largely composed in a coded text that is likely a form of spiritual writing. Drawing inspiration from the Book of Revelation, Hampton meticulously collected found objects for The Throne such as light bulbs, furniture, and mirrors and covered them with metal foil and his own visionary writings, in preparation for Christ’s Second Coming.

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Detail of The Throne

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Detail of The Throne

The piece came to the Museum’s attention shortly after Hampton’s death, when it was discovered by his landlord in the carriage house Hampton had rented for its construction. The piece had been made in seclusion, not entirely a secret but known only to a select few.

“At the time the piece was offered to the Smithsonian as a gift, there was no precedent for such work at a fine art museum—and no one fully understood it. Yet right away the piece captivated inveterate art audiences and the general public alike. I think this was a clarion call for museums to become more inclusive, to attend to art forms that represented a wider and more diverse public. Lynda Roscoe Hartigan was the curator on staff who carefully investigated The Throne and its possible meanings, and her work charted a course for taking startlingly original work like Hampton’s Throne seriously instead of treating it as a mere oddity. She connected it to important cultural threads instead of situating it as an isolated eccentric occurrence.”

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“The piece was made of fragile materials and had some 180 components, so it presented a conservation and care challenge. Yet it had incredible power, it demanded attention — not just as a gleaming thing unto itself but as a signal that American art narratives had for too long excluded too much, and that this reality needed to change.”

The acquisition of The Throne in 1968 and the first installation of it in 1971 set the Smithsonian American Art Museum on a new trajectory. The institution’s collection was significantly expanded in 1986 with the acquisition of the Herbert Waide Hemphill, Jr. collection. “Hemphill is largely credited with dismantling outmoded standards for folk art that situated it as something entirely of the past. He embraced highly personal visions that did not necessarily comply with traditional criteria and opened up a wider appreciation of art by the self-taught.”

Hemphill was a prominent curator, historian, and collector of American folk art who lived in New York City. Raised in Columbus, Georgia, he acquired his interest in collecting from his mother, whom he accompanied on shopping excursions for Dresden china and other notable antiques. Hemphill was known for his astute eye as much as for his inability to pass by flea markets. Over the course of his life, Hemphill collected nearly 3,000 art objects.

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Made with Passion: The Hemphill Folk Art Collection, exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, September 1990-January 1991

“Hemphill’s manner of thinking dovetailed neatly with ideas invoked by Hampton’s Throne — that of alternate narratives and personal visions being components of a constellation that, taken as a whole, told the story of America in a rich and highly effective way.” Due in large part to Hemphill’s collection, the Smithsonian’s body of work by folk and self-taught artists has now grown to include over a thousand pieces. Today, the Smithsonian American Art Museum is one of two major museums to dedicate a curatorial seat to the field of folk and self-taught art. In doing so, it has “taken up the mission of making the story more replete, working more broadly than ever to tell the story of America through the art of its people and to honor voices that have been too long suppressed or overlooked.”

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Portrait of Bert Hemphill By Howard Finster of The Hemphill Collection

In a venue that hosts over a million visitors each year, folk and self-taught art come to the fore, both in dedicated spaces and throughout the museum. “People struggle to encapsulate folk and self-taught art but for good reason—all cultures at all times have had something that falls into the scope of untrained artistry. Furthermore, it’s really a non-genre or non-movement—the art world has routinely taken notice of the originality of the untrained, but the reverse is far less often the case.”

Umberger conceptualizes folk and self-taught art as opposite extremes of a single continuum “with tradition at one pole and autonomy at the other, and all of it having developed apart from art world trends and markets. To discuss any particular artist you must consider where he or she falls along this line, each individual having varied amounts of traditional skills or ideas and personal vision.”

As she puts it: “To me, untrained artists are at their most compelling when the work reflects an unmediated vision, is highly personal, aesthetically powerful, and culturally transmitting. It does not set about to do something—it simply does it.”

By all accounts, James Hampton’s piece The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly accomplishes this end.