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 “grass-roots” 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, S.C., 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 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.
In early 1942 everything changed. James was drafted. He knew it was coming as soon he heard about Pearl Harbor on the night of December 7, 1941, right while he was squeezing the grease out of a pink, sizzling burger. Nigger like him, healthy and living in a part of the city white people didn’t even drive through, he knew. But it was okay, too, a part of God’s plan for him. He was a supplicant in the palm of the Father. He was 33, the same age as Jesus when they nailed him up in sunlight, and he was ready to sacrifice himself if that’s what God wanted.
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 the island of Guam. He returned to Washington in 1946, after receiving a Bronze Star and an honorable discharge. He rented a room in a boarding house not far from his brother’s apartment. Then he found work with the General Services Administration as a janitor—not good work but better than he would have gotten without that Bronze Star and veteran status.
After a brief illness, his brother, Lee, died suddenly in 1948. He went to work one day feeling a little down, a bad taste in his mouth and sweat breaking out all over him—he hadn’t been to a doctor in years because who could afford a doctor?—then came home, went to sleep, and never opened up his eyes. They must have buried Lee down in Elloree on a bright, sunny Saturday, James reading a stitched-together elegy made of Bible passages over his grave, tears rolling down his face. The whole town gathered around, dressed up black as crows, and softly sang hymns. But it was a short visit. After mourning and celebrating the ascendant soul of Lee for a day or two, James got on a train and headed back to Washington, the southern countryside smearing by in his window. 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.” Lee and his janitorial job were his only anchors to this world. Now Lee was gone.
Back in Washington, he went out only to work, find materials for “The Throne,” and attend a number of different churches in the city (he didn’t believe God would allow for strict denominations and divisiveness concerning His Word).
By 1949, at the age of 40, he felt the power of God buzzing electrically up his spine. The End Time was coming. He had sensed it during the war, in the stories he heard about what men were capable of doing to one another; he could see it now in the hard faces that hovered along sidewalks, could watch it growing in the people like a malignancy It was both a curse and a blessing that he sensed it so acutely, felt the world’s decay as a dull ache in his bones.
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, where he cleaned the floors and toilets of the people who ruled the world.
In 1950, at the request of God made in a dream, he rented an abandoned garage at 1133 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 light bulbs 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 first pink light of dawn started creeping up the Washington Monument.
Some afternoons and many weekends, he would visit local used-furniture stores, rubbing his hand across coffee tables, feeling how sturdy the leg of a chair was, staring for long minutes at a rickety old chest, then 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 light bulbs; or maybe out on the street with a croaker sack, asking bums if he could buy the foil off of 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 they were, throwing perfectly good material away because they didn’t like the way it looked. Sometimes he’d even get brand-new stuff because someone ordered twice what they actually needed. It made him smile, these finds. 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.
He had grown up with the Bible. Bible was his first language. He could remember his father preaching in Elloree, sweat on his forehead, people standing around in the backyard testifying. Praise God! He knew the power of God before he had any inkling of Self, knew later that there was no worthy Self without Him. But 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 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. After his death, some legible notes were found among stacks of papers. Among them were these messages: “This is true that the great Moses the giver of the tenth commandment appeared in Washington, D.C., April 11, 1931”; “This is true that on October 2, 1946, the great Virgin Mary and the Star of Bethlehem appeared over the nation’s capital”; “This is true that Adam the first man God created appeared in person on January 20, 1949. This was on the day of President Truman’s inauguration”; “This design [“The Throne”] is proof of the Virgin Mary descending [sic] into Heaven, November 2, 1950. It is also spoken of by Pope Pius XII.”
He also wrote a new Book of Revelation. Like St. John’s Revelation in the New Testament, recorded in a special language on the Isle of Patmos and scribbled onto parchment at the speed of a fever dream, St. James’ Revelation was also a kind of stenography from God. On fire with the Spirit when he wrote, he recorded these messages in a spiral notebook. On the cover, in blue government ink, was scribbled “The Book of the 7 Dispensation by St. James.” Scholars have deemed the book, like the commandments, illegible. The few English words that appear in it, such as Revelation and Virgin Mary, are most often in all caps and misspelled.
And I saw a new heaven and a new earth; the first heaven and the first earth were passed away.
He knew what that meant, knew the third heaven was the heaven of God, the second heaven was the heaven of the stars and the sun and the moon, and the first heaven, the doomed heaven spoken of in Revelation, was here, now. He was preparing.
He worked through the dark mornings, his joints and back tight as rusty hinges in the damp cold of the garage. Sometimes he’d stop to draw a quick sketch of a plan or to stare at what he was making.
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 the Lord Jesus Christ, you would never, ever die. Your tears would be wiped away and forgotten. If you placed your faith in Jesus, it didn’t matter that you cleaned toilets and lived alone, that sometimes the people on your street scared you, called you a crazy fuck, a hermit, that sometimes the voices in your head called you things even worse, things you didn’t want to hear; and it didn’t matter that so many of the people you loved had vanished from the earth and your life and you could actually feel the empty spaces they left behind. None of it mattered. And 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 light bulbs 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 second hand. He gave it gold wings and put it up high, a seat for the coming Savior. He gave it a high back—4 feet, 5 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 National Museum of American Art, 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.