On the west-facing side of the Glassworks building in downtown Louisville you will find an over-size image of sculptor ED HAMILTON with the legend, “Ed’s Louisville.” Part of a series of such tributes to native sons and daughters located throughout the city, the placement of this particular portrait is significant because the west side of town is where Hamilton came of age. Although born in Cincinnati, he grew up on what was then Walnut Street (later rechristened Muhammad Ali Boulevard); a stretch from 6th Street west to 18th Street that he describes in his autobiography as, “…my street, and I owned every crack and every weed in those concrete sidewalks.”* So it is appropriate that his visage is cast out onto what truly was Ed’s Louisville.
It also explains why the renowned artist has never let fame lure him away. His heart is here, where his parents, Edward Hamilton, Sr. and Amy Jane Hamilton, ran the family business, a tailoring and barbershop, in the early Mammoth Building at 6th and Walnut Streets. Hamilton’s first steps as an artist were at Parkland Junior High School, where art teacher Harriet O’ Malley nominated him for the Children’s Free Art Classes (CFAC) operated by Louisville Visual Art, then called The Art Center, located on the University of Louisville campus.
Hamilton becomes animated talking about this turning point: “If that teacher hadn’t picked me out for CFAC - she could have picked any of those other kids – but she picked me. I never would have gotten there on my own. I had no thought, no ambition to be an artist. That’s an example of why teachers are so important.”
Jean Mulhall, a professional medical illustrator taught that CFAC class, but the human form was not a subject. “We were mostly outside. We drew all over campus.”
Later he attended Shawnee High School, where his art instructor was Patsy Griffiths. In his autobiography, Hamilton describes the contentious atmosphere created by the push for “total” integration in the city schools: “I still remember the animosity and disrespect from white students in that school.” So the fact that Griffith, a white teacher, fostered the talent of a black student in the midst of such tension made an important impression on the budding young artist. When Hamilton graduated in 1965, she pushed him to apply for a scholarship to the Art Center School, which was located in the same building where he had taken CFAC classes. When he returned, with portfolio under his arm, for his interview, he was taken aback: “It had been a few years, and I was still young,’ he laughs, ”and I kept thinking, ‘this place sure seems familiar’.”
The Art Center building was located on South First Street on the U of L campus, and Hamilton used to hang out between classes at a café in Bigelow Hall that was a gathering place on campus for Black students. It was there he met his wife. “I made my move… and introduced myself. When she said her name was Bernadette…well, the name alone was enough for me!” For their 50th Wedding Anniversary in 2017, the Hamiltons are planning a trip to Europe to celebrate.
Of course, there is a lot more life and history between that meeting and today. For 49 years Ed Hamilton has built a career and a reputation that now positions him as one of the foremost American sculptors of public work. Yet his studio is surprisingly modest considering the scale of some of his most famous pieces: the Lincoln Memorial in Louisville, the Joe Louis statue in Detroit, or the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial, in Newport News, Virginia. It is a reminder of Hamilton’s humble roots and that, whatever his preeminence, he remains a hard-working artist.
His latest commission is a life-size bronze bust of George DeBaptiste to be installed in a park development in Madison, Indiana. DeBaptiste (1815-1875) was a freeborn black man who settled in Madison before the Civil War and was a conductor on the Underground Railroad, ferrying slaves across the Ohio into Indiana, and later a key figure in the abolitionist movement after riots forced him to move his family to Michigan. It is a subject that fits very well into Hamilton’s oeuvre of African-American History. Taking on such stories as the mutiny of the slave-ship Amistad, African American soldiers during the American Civil War, the migration of southern blacks to the western United States, or the contributions of such individuals as Booker T. Washington and Medgar Evers, seems a natural task for someone with such an acute sense of history. Hamilton does extensive research into the historical background of each project just to prepare his submission, long before he has been formally selected. “I’d like to think it makes the difference – one of the reasons they choose ME.” Even 25 years after completing the Amistad Memorial in New Haven, Connecticut, he speaks extemporaneously and in great detail of Cinque’s mutiny aboard the notorious slave ship and the landmark Supreme Court ruling that finally allowed he and his compatriots to return to their native Sierre Leone twenty years before the Civil War. Should Hamilton ever wish to “retire” from making monuments, he could easily forge a lucrative career as a guest lecturer in history classes, just don’t expect that retirement to come anytime soon.
*The Birth of An Artist: A Journey of Discovery, by Ed Hamilton, Chicago Spectrum Press, 2006
This Feature article was written by Keith Waits.
In addition to his work at the LVA, Keith is also the Managing Editor of a website, www.Arts-Louisville.com, which covers local visual arts, theatre, and music in Louisville.
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Photos by Sarah Katherine Davis. Written by Keith Waits. Entire contents copyright © 2016 Louisville Visual Art. All rights reserved.