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 William L. Hawkins  (1895 - 1990)

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Lived/Active: Kentucky      Known for: folk art painting and found object sculpture

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Ad Code: 3
William L Hawkins
from Auction House Records.
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Folk artist William L. Hawkins was born in rural Kentucky in 1895, coming north in 1916. His early years in Kentucky provided him with his knowledge and love of animals, an awareness that is seen even in his most fantastic dinosaur paintings. Influenced by his grandmother who took part in the African American tradition of quilt making, Hawkins' paintings show many similarities -- including exploding color schemes, various materials used within a single piece and an improvisational repetitive pattern.

In Columbus, Ohio, Hawkins, barely able to read and write, held an assortment of unskilled jobs, drove a truck, and even ran a small brothel. He was married twice and claimed to have fathered some twenty children. Although Hawkins was drawing and selling his work as early as the 1930's, he did not begin painting in the style for which he is best known until the mid-to late 1970s. He worked almost without letup thereafter, in spite of illness and advancing age.

At first, Hawkins used inexpensive and readily available materials: semi-gloss and enamel paints in primary colors thrown out by a local hardware store, and a single blunt brush. His earliest large works were painted on scavenged board, such as interior paneling he found on construction sites near his home. Later, when he could afford it, he painted on Masonite, which he preferred because it didn't "suck up the paint" like cardboard or plywood. Sometimes he dripped paint or let it flow across the surface as he tilted it so he could "watch the painting make itself." He often painted elaborate borders around his pictures and attached such materials as wood, gravel, newspaper photos, or found objects.

Hawkins painted everything, from local Columbus, Ohio, architectural monuments to Wild West gunfights, from prehistoric beasts to famous scenes from American History, which he combined with his impressions and recollections. His subject matter was taken from photographs torn from books, magazines and newspapers which he kept in a suitcase in his bedroom. Whenever Hawkins was ready to begin a painting he would rummage through the wrinkled and folded images and wait for something to inspire him, or, as he would say, "Give me a gift."

His immediate surroundings were also a constant source of inspiration, his own home an explosion of colors and shapes, discarded fragments of wood and collage materials waiting to be appropriated as bold, inventive patterns apparent in his singular style.

He also painted his signature and birth date and often his place of birth, in large letters that framed his paintings.

Hawkins suffered a stroke in 1989, from which he only partly recovered, and he died several months later at nearly ninety-five years of age. The Columbus Museum of Art, in Ohio, gave him a posthumous one-man show. He once summed up his aspirations as an artist by remarking, "You have to do something wonderful, so people know who you are."

In 1999, the Wexner Center for the Arts, Ohio State University, Columbus, put on the show, "Self-Taught Artists of the 20th Century: An American Anthology", featuring thirty-one folk, naïve artists, including William L. Hawkins. The exhibition had previously been shown at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania; the High Museum of Art, Atlanta; Amon Carter Museum and the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas; and the Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, New York.

Chronicle Books and the Museum of American Folk Art, New York, published a catalogue with biographical and interpretive essays on each artist by Arthur C. Danto, Jane Kallir, Michael D. Hall, exhibition co-curator Elsa Longhauser, and others.

In 2000, the Ricco Maresca Gallery, New York City, held an extensive exhibition.

William L. Hawkins' painting, Food Bar, a scene from his Columbus neighborhood, is in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of American Art.


Born in rural Kentucky, he grew up barely literate and began painting in the 1930s after moving to Columbus, Ohio. He made his pictures with recycled house paints and refuse from trash dumps. He was "discovered" in the 1980s by the art crowd of New York who pushed him forward as "a creative intelligence."

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