Photo: William Arnett, 1986

Hawkins Bolden

Memphis, Tennessee
1914 - 2005

Hawkins Bolden Insight

William Arnett

Hawkins Bolden and his identical twin, Monroe, were born September 10, 1914, in the Bailey’s Bottom section of Memphis. As his late sister Elizabeth Williams told it, “Daddy was a Creole man from Middleton, Tennessee; Mama was an Indian lady from Alabama. Her daddy came as a slave from Africa and married this Indian lady after he was set free. Daddy and Mama had relatives from down in Georgia who talked Geechee (an African American dialect spoken along the Atlantic coast).”1

As a child, Hawkins wanted only to play baseball. Professional baseball existed in Memphis, and major league baseball was up the river in St. Louis, with two teams, the Cardinals and the Browns. Hawkins was a seven-year-old catcher, playing at home and in the streets and in vacant lots scattered throughout the rows of small wooden shacks. One day, with Hawkins catching and brother Monroe at bat, a pitch was thrown high and outside, and catcher Hawkins, crouching, assuming Monroe would not swing, stood up to receive it. But Monroe did swing, and the bat missed the pitch and connected with Hawkins Bolden’s head.

Soon after, Hawkins began to suffer seizures. Elizabeth recalled that when he was taken for medical treatment, “the doctors said he had epilepsy and that his brain had grew too large for his skull. They said we Boldens have Indian skulls. See, Indians got small skulls, and they said Hawkins’s skull couldn’t hold his brain. They drilled a hole in his skull.”

The seizures continued, and one day, when Hawkins was eight, he collapsed to the ground, landed on his back, and stared up at the sun. He never saw again. “I couldn’t stop looking at the sun,” he says. “I just looked and my eyes went dark. I never did see nothing after that. I can feel things. I know the sunshine. I can feel the heat.”

In 1930, sixteen-year-old Hawkins moved to a small house in midtown Memphis with his family, including brothers Monroe and Clarence, and sisters Elizabeth, Lula, and Rosetta. (Hawkins and his older sister Elizabeth, the last survivors of the family, lived together in that same house for almost seventy years.) Bolden has sensed the changes that have taken place around him, as his quiet residential neighborhood has become incorporated into the expanded commercial center of downtown Memphis:

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There used to be a big field over here where I found stuff. Then they went and built a big building on it. I used to find stuff in the streets, and in the alleys, where people throwed it away. People don’t throw nothing away no more. Everything is worth money now. I can’t go in the streets; too many cars now.

The garbage men used to give me stuff ‘cause they knowed I would make use of it. They don’t give me nothing no more. I used to get the children around here to find me stuff. They won’t do that now. They ain’t got time.

The Bolden house had no electricity at first, but the resourceful teenage twins remedied that. Years later, Elizabeth remembered, “Hawkins and Monroe ran electricity into the house theirselves. Hawkins couldn’t see, but Monroe taught him how to help. I don’t know how they did it. Monroe taught Hawkins how to make a radio, too. Hawkins been making radios ever since.” Indeed, Hawkins Bolden has been making radios on his own since brother Monroe left to join the navy at age eighteen. All he says he needs is wire, a crystal, and a coat hanger. Bolden has listened to every St. Louis Cardinals game for as long as he remembers, and likes to talk about Stan Musial, Bob Gibson, Ozzie Smith, and other stars of the past fifty years. When he is not listening to baseball games, he is likely to be listening to gospel music. In the old days, his homemade radios picked up Havana, Cuba.

Like most artists, Bolden has made things all his life: “Oh, I made kites, I made tom walkers–leg stilts–out of poles and tin cans–my daddy taught me to do a lot of them things–skate trucks. Later on I made toys for my nieces and nephews.” Elizabeth said,

He made–I called it a truck–he got some baseboards, some wheels, and he would pull it in the alley, and across the street, going that way, and I’d be coming this way, and when the light would com on red, Hawkins would stop, and when the cars would stop, Hawkins would pull that thing this way, and I would say to myself, “I know he can see, I am not convinced he can’t see!” But he couldn’t see at all. He just always knowed things, see or not.

What other things has Hawkins Bolden made? What are the totem-like guardian figures that for three decades have lined his fences and have adorned his backyard? Or the smaller, masklike objects interspersed among Bolden’s anthropomorphic sentinels? Or the unidentifiable assemblages made of whatever Hawkins Bolden’s fingers have happened upon and picked up, then wrapped with wire, added scraps of sidewalk flotsam and rotting alleyway jetsam, the resulting accumulations strangely resembling the minkisi of the Kongo peoples, literally their “medicine of the gods”? “I started making faces and things out of stuff I found, probably about 1965. One of my nieces said, ‘Put them in your garden to keep the birds out.’ So I guess you can call them things scarecrows.”

Bolden’s yard art is made of whatever littered the Memphis streets and alleys: plastic milk bottles, tin cans, hubcaps, automobile license plates, chitlin’ buckets, and other discards, broken or nonfunctional, from the neighborhood–wagons, chairs, Christmas light extension cords, radio wire, teapots, saucepans, toys. Most of his works, perhaps all, are representational… barely. Human faces and bodies. Some are self-portraits. A hairy growth on his face near his mouth is represented on some of the faces he makes, created of artificial Christmas tree pine needles, a patch of shag carpet, or whatever else fits the role. “I use shoe soles and hose pipes and carpet pieces to make tongues,” he says. If there is any color or written inscription on an object, it is totally coincidental: “Sometimes I feel words on something, but I don’t know what it is. I don’t ask nobody about it or about color, neither. I don’t worry about color. I know when I can make something by how it feels.”

His “studio” is unique among artists’ studios. Bolden collects his materials and tosses them into the dark, damp crawl space beneath his house. To retrieve them for use when he is inspired to create, he walks, stooped, on all fours, his right hand reaching–swinging–along the dirt floor, until he grasps the components that he requires. He then hammers, cuts, twists, attaches, and bends materials into his scarecrows–or whatever they are.

A visitor once asked Bolden what he has in mind when he makes a piece for the yard, suggesting that surely he has a reason for doing all this. “Yes sir, I do!” He says emphatically. “The birds be thinking something going to get them. They get scared. They stay away.”

Artist Lonnie Holley, who has visited Hawkins Bolden on two occasions, offers this interpretation:

After losing his sight, he searched to hear. He is always looking for the sound to please his spirit. He is a constant listener, reaching to receive the right material to catch the perfect sound… The blow of the bat still rings in his ears… When a man have cried over something, and when a man have toiled over something and been conducted by the spirit of what he’s used to hearing, the different sounds he makes in the quiet of himself, the different things that he hear from within that quietness of himself, allow him to create the perfect, that others can receive. He does that so that others can see. Why fear what is within ourselves? He was not trying to frighten the bird away. He was trying to attract it, so he could hear its beautiful sound.2