Kevin Sampson: Memorial Maker

Kevin Sampson: Memorial Maker

Article by  Wayne Cox 

Kevin Blythe Sampson, 47, is a self-taught sculptor recognized for tackling difficult issues that concern him and his Newark, N.J., neighbors. For insight into the creative process of this community-connected artist, read Sampson’s unedited words (presented here in italics).

In the months after the 2000 presidential election, many residents of Newark’s Ironbound neighborhood were apprehensive about George W. Bush. Sampson was one of those. In fact, he could think of little else. The son of a civil rights leader, he said he feared a resurgence of “America’s racist past and present.” So did many of the people with whom he talked almost daily — store clerks, cops, drug dealers, students and the homeless.

Sampson said he worried that Bush’s “old boy network” would turn the nation toward isolation and aggression and cause it “to stand alone in the world community.” Sampson did what he usually does when he has questions — he made something. He didn’t know what it would be at first. But he knew it would become a sculpture that expressed the apprehension he and his neighbors felt. He later called what he made “Fourth of July.”

“I chose the ashtray first — one I used for several years. I found all the materials in my house or on the street in front of my house. I coated the ashtray with cement and then thought of a park. So I put a tree in the middle. Then I thought about the election again and about the Republican Party’s distorted view. I wrapped cloth around the small tree. I knew the cloth would be a flag. . . . I guess I had a premonition, although I never could have predicted the horrible events of September 11.”

“As an American and an African-American I have conflicted feelings, but as an African-American I will do what we always have done: step up and defend the country and argue about the rest later. Of course, September 11 changed just about everything. Many of these issues were placed on the back burner nationally and personally. With the rise of patriotism and the war on terrorism, the election controversy was muted. Racial profiling of blacks became racial profiling of Muslims.”

Sampson chose to depict the election of George W. Bush as a flag-festooned park under a state of apprehension. I interpret Sampson’s statement partially as a warning involving the use of the American flag. For the past few months, the flag has helped the nation symbolically oppose terrorism and ameliorate its grief. But will the flag also become a symbol of the curtailing of personal freedom? Will it signify overly expanded military action? The message of the “Fourth of July” might be: “Take comfort in the flag, but be vigilant.” If the flag is flown at the risk of what it stands for, consider it a distress signal.

Still thinking about the presidential election, Sampson dug into a box of toys and found a figure of George Washington. “I wanted to do another chair,” he said. Placing the figure in a Garden of Eden atop a chair, he covered Washington first with glue and sand and then with clay and cement. He gave Washington the face of a black lawn jockey. This sculpture is called “Uncle Sammy.”

“You know, the ones that used to be on many a lawn. The black guy with black face and red lips holding a lantern. When I was a young guy, those lawn jockeys drove me mad. My father told me a story. He said that the guy holding the lantern was a hero. He said he was with George Washington in one of his first battles during the American revolution. That he died holding a lantern, and he kept Washington’s horse safe and warm. And Washington was able to mount his campaign against the British.”

“I thought later what a disturbing story this was. Was he really a hero or a fool? If he is a hero, then let him take his place in history. That sculpture, brightly painted throughout with red, white and blue, represents African-American service to the country. It represents dreams and hope. In front of the sculpture is a hand that represents America saying “stop!”, the imaginary ceiling African-Americans live under. No one got this sculpture.”

At the time, no one understood what Sampson was saying.

Sampson’s neighborhood was once predominantly Portugese; it now contains many nationalities. In the spring of 2001, Sampson started gluing together a chair, then found a model railway car. He thought about the Chinese blood that was lost in building the nation’s railways. He added cement and wood. A man across the street had given him a box of broken toys. People often give Sampson things he can use. He added some of these toys and applied paint.

I don’t particularly make choices in the design: it simply grows. It ended up a Chinese settlement in the old West. It represents the Chinese enduring spirit and great contribution to a nation that treated them poorly. . . . I mixed in the Japanese and their treatment during World War II. The bottom of the sculpture represents the internment camps.

This sculpture is titled “The Golden Spike.”

Sampson says some of his sculptures express the community’s conscience. Others testify to his bond with his family. The sculpture Barbershop does both. Made, in part, from pork rib bones that his father, Stephen Sampson, collected from meals eaten during a trip back to his hometown of Cuthbert, Ga., the sculpture honors his father’s shop in Elizabeth, N.J. The building served as a community meeting ground and a nerve center for civil rights groups in the 1960s and 1970s.

“I used the things he collected for me along the way, from a fishing trip all the way down the eastern seaboard. I was making houses. I made the barbershop where he was a barber for over 50 years. The message is simply home, love and power. . . . My background is such that I don’t separate religion from art. My father was a Sunday school teacher for over 50 years. He taught about the Bible, but he taught it through the eyes of a black historian. . . . All the civil unrest and demonstrations were planned in my family’s kitchen, with my mother frying fish for the planners. . . . So politics and religion are meshed in my mind. Religion is there for me not only to purify the soul, but to purify [the] surroundings. . . . The spiritual part of my work is ingrained in the history of my race. It doesn’t even have to be discussed. It is a given.”

“I am a member of my community, and my job is to get their hopes, dreams, loves and hates out there. It’s my obligation. . . . I go out in the streets. I run my mouth all day long. I find out what people are thinking about most things. . . . I try to find out the real stories behind .. . . people’s lives. . . . I need all of them to make my day and to make a piece of work.”

One can also sculpt to forget.

“Donna Rhea is my sister. When I was a child, I made up an imaginary place, sort of like an invisible companion. It was called devil land. It was very intricate and had a vast social structure and rules. Now I don’t remember much about the place. But my sister Donna remembers everything about it. She gave me some old jewelry her ex-husband had given her. She wanted to get rid of it and, thus, the memories. When I got the jewelry, I knew I had to build a box for it. Everything in the sculpture came from her. . . . I used it as a way of exorcising her demons and mine, using a childhood place that we can both relate to.”

The sculpture Donna Rhea and Devil Land is characteristic of the way Sampson had begun making objects nearly a decade earlier.

From a very early age, Sampson liked to draw. Right out of high school, he became a policeman in Scotch Plains, N.J. He taught himself figure drawing and became a police sketch artist, in high demand throughout the state. While still on the force, he took up painting.

A series of family tragedies caused him to resign from the police department and turn to art entirely, both as a release and as an alternate way of providing service to his community. In the early 1990s, after his wife, Pamela, was diagnosed with a terminal illness, their son, Kyle, was born prematurely and died.

Whatever happened changed me. I went out to the backyard, grabbed a log and began carving things. My favorite cousin, Carol Oliver, died three months later. She had turned to [the] Santeria [religion] before she died of an illness, in an attempt to find a cure. After she died, her mother gave me all of the things from her altars. Then I made my first sculpture of my cousin sitting on a ship heading for the next life. That was the beginning. I became consumed with the sculptures. In the beginning, so many of my friends had died of AIDS or drugs that I made over 50 of these.

Soon after, his wife also died. After 18 years on the force, 10 as a sketch artist, Sampson gave up police work. He already had taught himself the technique of painting with an airbrush. So he took a job teaching airbrush painting at an art school and also has taught art at a neighborhood center. And he began a life as a single parent of his two biological children and an adopted son.

The memorial sculptures Sampson created differed in a significant way from the work of other artists in New York City who were making vernacular memorials honoring the dead. Most of these were either murals or, in Latin American neighborhoods, street-side, altar-like assemblages of objects meant to last through only a brief public-display period of remembrance and grief.

What Sampson created (and is still creating) is permanent and movable. He frequently gives his memorials to relatives of the deceased. They usually are displayed in homes and not in public. The manner in which he constructs the memorials is also his own. He molds and cements and paints over, sometimes concealing, sometimes revealing individual items, such as animal bones, chile peppers, hair, jewelry, tile, wax and pieces of wood.

Instead of a street-style altar made with separate objects or a Joseph Cornell-style, glued-on assemblage, he creates a unified single object — a small symbolic monument. By not planning what he makes, he allows for a spontaneous melding of concern, creativity and memory, prompted by his reaction to the objects at hand. Each memorial is unique, unexpected and complete.

Testifying with words or song is commonplace in the black Baptist community in which Sampson grew up. Sampson says that, in the best of all possible worlds, he would like to have been a singer. Instead, he is testifying with objects. I interpret Sampson’s memorials as, “By this marker know that this person was cherished enough to be remembered. Know that the truth of this symbol can stand for the truth of this person. See that some of the objects offered were those belonging to the person. Let the spirit world recognize that person and accept the person as one of its own.”

For his monuments marking community concerns, the message is the same: “By this marker know that what Kevin Sampson and his community were worried about in the spring of 2001 is a concern worth noting and worth witnessing. Let this assemblage serve as a reminder for us, for others and for all time.”

Randall Morris describes Sampson’s work as “work from Homeground: amuletic, connected with culture and personal history[,] . . . a form of miniaturized indoor yard show, with all the glory, fire, mystery and history, medicine, healing and memory of a yard show.”

“I rescue other people’s memories left in the objects they leave behind and use that power to fuel my creations. I start making a piece while walking around. I find the first object. It always seems to find me, in fact. The objects always seem to fit into what I am thinking about — issues and such. What do I get in return from community besides motivation? I get renewal. Being down here in Newark is real. It’s the real world.”

That real world was a little too harsh for Sampson after September 11. For five months, he stopped making sculptures. He did a lot of worrying and writing and making drawings, which were often harsh and bleak like the times. Recently, however, a vision has prompted him to begin making sculptures again, starting with a version of Noah’s Ark — a return to the memorial ship that began his sculpting voyage.

“When I am grounded and plugged into my senses and the universe, I can turn myself into a little bird and fly around the sculpture and see it while I am building it. . . . That’s the closest I can get to describing how I can work without planning.”

Happily, Kevin Sampson, Newark’s witness and prophet, is flying again. During January and February, Sampson’s work was included in Street Savvy, a group show of six artists’ works, organized by Tom Patterson at Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning in Jamaica, N.J. Another recent exhibition at Cavin-Morris Gallery in New York City was titled Blue and Black: New Sculpture by Kevin Sampson.

Sampson has received the Joan Mitchell Foundation award for art. His work is in the collection of the American Folk Art Museum in New York City, and he recently served as artist-in-residence at New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

WAYNE COX directs a public policy research organization. He also documents, collects and writes about self-taught art. He and his wife, Myrene, live in Miami, Florida, and Port Maria, Jamaica. They were recently named by Art and Antiques Magazine to its list of the Top 100 Art Collectors in the United States.

As seen in the Folk Art Messenger:

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