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    On a warm April afternoon in 1973, Ed Hamilton, sporting a large Afro, steered his puttering beige Volkswagen Beetle down a stretch of Frankfort Avenue crossed by railroad tracks. Hamilton had to pick up blocks of clay at a shop for his students at Iroquois High School, where he was helping to teach ceramics and sculpture.

    Four years out of art school himself, the aspiring sculptor possessed an ambition, fired by an Afrocentric awakening with a group of like-minded black artists, that was competing with the demands of everyday life. Already, making ends meet had meant painting signs alone in a department store, waiting tables downtown at the Pendennis Club and stamping bombs at an ammunition plant. Now he was teaching high school art. It was art, but it was draining, and was frustrating his desire to be a full-time artist. “You can’t make art when you’re trying to teach someone else to make art,” he says today.

    From the VW he eyed sculptor Barney Bright’s studio on Frankfort Avenue, right next to the ceramics supply shop. Inside was the notoriously untidy space of the artist Hamilton had admired since thinking whoa after seeing Bright’s voluptuous, modern female Earth Mama at the Speed Museum and his depiction of Icarus, the boy from Greek mythology who flew too close to the sun. “I gotta meet this cat,” he’d thought.

    Bright, a wiry, bearded sculptor who held court in his studio and later an associated bronze foundry, was one of the few sculptors Hamilton knew making a living off his art. But he was also known for being quick to decide whether or not he liked you. Hamilton had considered knocking before. But he never drummed up the courage. “He ain’t gonna let me in,” he figured.

    Just as Hamilton was getting ready to turn the key in the ignition and drive away, Bright walked out the front door to collect his mail. What the hell, Hamilton thought, and he walked up to introduce himself.

    “Come on in,” Bright said.

    Inside was, to Hamilton, like some kind of sculptor’s nirvana: half-finished busts and heads, molds, sketches, the smell of the clay, of wax cooking, glues and sculptor’s tools. And the air of creation. This, he thought, is what I want.

    Bright pulled out two wooden crates and they sat down to talk. Discussions of art school led Bright to mention a student sculpture he’d admired, a take on a famous Rodin piece, which stood temporarily outside the University of Louisville art building. Hamilton’s heart jumped. That was his piece. They talked all day. Bright’s own career had taken flight by a twist of fate: His layoff from General Electric in 1950 led him to risk buying his studio for $400.

    “I’ve got a job coming up,” Bright said. “I could use some help.”

    “Mr. Bright, I’m ready,” Hamilton replied.

    Hamilton couldn’t drive home fast enough to his wife Bernadette. “Bern,” he said, “guess who I met today?”

    “Who?”

    “Barney Bright,” he said. “And by the way, I won’t be going back to school this fall.”

    Bernadette had a teaching job and, Hamilton says, “more or less became the breadwinner” so he could try to focus on art. In eight years apprenticing under Bright, Hamilton refined his sculpting technique, turning out surface textures and contours that seemed to speak. Details that leapt to the eyes. Figures both authentic and dramatic. He helped on sculptural projects ranging from River Horse, located in front of the Romano Mazzoli Federal Building, to the whimsical Louisville Clock, a 40-foot-tall Derby-themed ornamental clock featuring sculptures of figures such as Daniel Boone and King Louis XVI. Hamilton calls it “the derndest thing you ever saw in your life.” He also learned a work ethic of long hot days in the studio and the wonders of an after-work Old Forester. The pair would sip bourbon and talk art.

    “My dad fed off Ed’s energy,” says Jep Bright, whose father passed away in 1997. “They both had that fire. See, artists are like musicians. There are a lot of musicians, but only a handful have enough fire in the belly to be really successful.”

    Louisville recently marked a decade since Hamilton dedicated his ruddy-faced young Abraham Lincoln sculpture that holds a steely gaze on the Ohio River at Waterfront Park, and it’s been even longer since his 3,000-pound bronze memorial to black Civil War soldiers in Washington, D.C., The Spirit of Freedom, won him national acclaim in 1998. In 2003, his face was hoisted onto the side of the Glassworks building downtown as a Hometown Hero.

    His pieces dot the city he never left: There’s Menorah Tree of Life at the Temple on U.S. 42, the Smoketown Boxing Legends monument at Hancock and Lampton streets, and the Belvedere’s eight-foot-tall bronze York, honoring the enslaved man who was part of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. 

    Now, at age 72, Hamilton has stopped wanting or needing to compete for work. Instead, it comes to him. Most days he arrives at his studio at 11 a.m. or so, not the 6 a.m. he saw as a hungry young sculptor. With a life’s work of more than 75 pieces large and small under his belt, Hamilton is content to have remained rooted in Louisville despite a career that still took him farther than he dreamed through national commissions of African-American public sculpture — even if some friends say his success squeezed out time for more freewheeling art projects.

    Fellow artist William Duffy, who once shared Hamilton’s studio space, says it’s a far cry from leaner times, when Hamilton used to joke about the lack of recognition, such as honorary dinners, in ways that hinted at the barriers, both racial and practical, that he had to transcend. “It still tickles me. Ed used to say, ‘Man, ain’t nobody recognizes us. I ain’t never had a dinner,’” Duffy says. “‘The Lone Ranger, he had a dinner. Tonto? He still ain’t had a dinner.’”

     

    “Hey, man,” says Ed Hamilton, pulling open a paint-chipped door in his signature beret, tortoise-shell glasses and gray stubble, flashing a friendly, uncomplicated smile. “Come on in.”

    Above him, on the façade of his two-story 1870s Phoenix Hill studio, a building that once housed a German hardware store that sold cooking stoves and tin, lowercase lettering reads, “ed hamilton, sculptor.” His faded burgundy 1990 Mercedes with 360,000 miles on the odometer sits at the curb.

    Hamilton, slim and about 5-foot-10, with graceful hands, is wearing multicolored socks, boat shoes and khakis under his clay-smeared painter’s jacket. He walks with aged but elegant rhythm. His friends say he’s still the stylish guy he always was: He favors dapper suits, scarves, sharp hats. He still calls people “cats” and likes Old Forester. Why the lowercase lettering on his studio? Cool, he says. Understated.

    He makes his way through the cavernous, exposed-brick space, a chaotic forest of sculpted busts, a handless Abraham Lincoln wearing a flag as a cape, artwork and photos, posters from African-American history exhibits, crucifixes, old mugs, yellowing newspaper clippings about him, books on the Civil War and French art. A thin layer of red-clay dust coats it all.

    The studio he’s worked in since 1978 has come to serve as a tumbled tableau of the Louisville artist’s life story of struggle and fame. It’s the site of countless nights of frustrations and breakthroughs, of sessions with fellow black artists set to Miles Davis, of long hours and near disasters, like when an electrical fire nearly destroyed the studio in 1988 and led the artist Robert Rauschenberg to send him $500 from a fund for artists facing hardships.

    Garbage cans filled with clay stand against one wall, some from 27-pound blocks he orders but others from unused bits recycled from past projects. Any new sculpture might contain clay from early versions of his most famous pieces. “All that clay has been reborn,” he says. 

    Berets in different colors are strewn about on tables. Near a sink surrounded by cans of paints, brushes, glues and sprays, his old console stereo cranks out “What’s Going On,” by Marvin Gaye. “That’s my boy, man,” Hamilton says. On other days it might be satellite radio, Frank Sinatra or jazz records. He walks to a circular, floor-mounted metal turntable that holds his sculptures as they rise, just below a hole he cut in the ceiling to make room for the height of his creations.

    His routine starts the same each day. He pulls on his “uniform” and examines yesterday’s work. Today, for one of the nation’s go-to sculptors of black history, it’s a statue of North Carolina civil-rights lawyer Julius Chambers, famed for helping integrate schools. Surrounding Hamilton are taped photos, sketches, small models and a head he’s sculpting. He has decided to depict Chambers in motion, racing up courthouse steps gripping a boxy briefcase. His deadline is sometime next year. No specific month. “You can’t rush that shit,” he says. “You can’t rush good art.” Once he’s done, he might have another commission lined up and ready to go, or he might go three months or a year in between.

    After the publicity and glad-handing of a big project, Duffy says, melancholy can set in. Hamilton will create personal pieces such as drawings that are rewarding but “don’t pay the rent.” Some gnawing questions never completely go away. “With each project, you think you’ve really done something. You get great reviews and newspaper articles. You think, shit, I’m there now,” Hamilton says. “But it really doesn’t work that way.”

    When he’s working, everything else is put out of his mind. Hamilton doesn’t daydream. He concentrates like a rock climber on a cliff face. He wants his work to communicate something different from every angle, to express a moment, a spirit, a story, a personality. “You don’t think about anything other than what you’re doing. Making it better. No bills, no cars, no houses, nobody I should be concerned about, other than what I’m working on right in the moment,” he says.

    Once he gets into the flow, it’s not cool to be distracted. Which is why, after repeated follow-up questions for this piece over several months, his patience wears thin and frustration seeps through the phone. “What more do you need?” he asks, ending the conversation with a disarming, “All right. I love ya, man.”

    On this day, he’s feeling good, just back from a vacation at a rented house on Martha’s Vineyard with his wife and their two grown children, watching boats, feeding geese, sipping bourbon and reading the New York Times.

    “Let’s get this over with,” he says, sitting down on a chair in his studio with a winking smile.

     

    On a Sunday afternoon at his home off River Road in eastern Jefferson County, Hamilton is in slippers on a leather sofa when he hears a voice speaking on the phone upstairs. “That’s my Bernadette,” he says, eyes lighting up as he calls to his wife of 52 years, who retired from JCPS as head of magnet schools and advanced programs in 2013. The couple moved here in 2010 after four decades at 43rd and Market in the West End, tired of the area’s neglect and a dearth of shopping and services dating back to the era of redlining and urban renewal. It was tough, because of his commitment to his community through art and activism, and many had begged him not to go. “It was time,” he says. “I can’t change everybody.”

    The house is sprinkled with paintings and art, and friends, writers and artists will gather at the dining table. One wall holds a framed photo of the World Trade Center towers and a receipt from the north tower’s Windows on the World restaurant, where he ate a day before the terror attacks on 9/11 while in New York competing for a memorial of baseball players Pee Wee Reese and Jackie Robinson, which he ultimately didn’t get. On a wall in the living room is a piece from his “confinement” series of sculptures depicting “how we discard people,” he says. It was created from a crushed muffler, a chicken bone and other found objects. “The patina on the old cans and roofing metal, it’s got a beauty all its own,” he says.

    Hamilton met his wife in 1966 at the University of Louisville cafeteria. Bernadette Chapman, the oldest of eight siblings, was studying education, and he was studying art. Hamilton, a self-professed ladies’ man, was transfixed. She, too, had grown up in Louisville’s West End before integration. Hamilton, though born in Cincinnati at a residence for pregnant teens in 1947, was adopted in Louisville by Edward Norton Hamilton, a World War I Army veteran, and Amy Hamilton, who was 23 years younger. (In the mid-2000s, Hamilton found his birth mother in Ohio and connected with her relatives.) Hamilton grew up on Walnut Street (now Muhammad Ali Boulevard) in what was then the heart of Louisville’s black community, later razed during
    urban renewal.

    He came of age amid black-owned nightclubs, theaters such as the Lyric, diners, pawnshops, clothing stores, groceries and barbershops. He was drawn to plaster busts in store windows and the white mannequins in window displays on Fourth Street. On Sundays, he attended the Broadway Temple African Methodist Episcopal Church.

    His parents ran a combined tailor and barber shop at Sixth and Walnut. It was a place of metal and leather barber chairs and plaster sinks, frequented by waiters from nearby nightclubs who came in to play billiards, which Hamilton recounts in his 2006 memoir, The Birth of an Artist. When he was little, Hamilton was fascinated by his father’s button box and tools, as well as his mother’s shears, which he used to cut tin cans and make art. His mother, along with sending him to tap-dance lessons, kept him in stocked up on crayons and pencils. “When he was a little child,” she told the Courier-Journal in 1984, “he was always drawing on something. We’d take him to church, and he’d start drawing on little cards or pieces of paper, anything left in the pews.” When Hamilton was 13, two years after his parents moved to the Parkland neighborhood in 1958, his father died of heart disease. “I lost my male support system at home,” he says. 

    A former doorman at the Lyric, the late artist G. Caliman (“G.C.”) Coxe, once told the C-J that Hamilton was among a group of children who regularly appeared at the theater to see if they might get in free when no one was looking. (The two would meet again in another key chapter for Hamilton.)

    At Parkland Junior High, teachers noticed Hamilton’s artistic talents. Art teacher Harriet O’Malley told his parents, “I think Ed’s got something.” She encouraged his drawing and painting. At Shawnee High, art teacher Patsy Griffith also fostered his talent, teaching him to paint what she found in his sketchbook and to manipulate clay. “The teachers kept telling us, ‘Your son is really gifted,’” said his mother, who died in 2006 at 99 years old.

    Hamilton was among the few black students at Shawnee at a time when battles over open housing and segregated lunch counters raged. “You couldn’t sit down and get a hamburger at white restaurants. You couldn’t go to most of the theaters,” he says. But it was rarely discussed at home over the dinner table. “I wanted to go out and march, and (my mother) wouldn’t let me,” he says. “‘Nope, you’re not going out there. Nope, nope, nope.’ My parents were from the old school. Some folks were adamant about going out and participating, and you had some people who were passive and didn’t want to be a part of that,” he says. “So I never got a chance to go out there and hold up a sign and say, ‘Let’s open this up.’”

    Hamilton was encouraged to apply at the Art Center School, which later became the University of Louisville School of Art, with a portfolio of a small clay piece of a man sitting on a pedestal, three paintings and a sketchbook. He was granted a four-year scholarship, one of only two black students, making him feel at times an outsider.

    While he first loved holding the heavy, earthen clay in his hands in middle school, Hamilton didn’t catch the fever until he saw a sculpting studio filled with modeling tools and smelling of clay. “I like physicality. I like making things, feeling things,” he says. “Painting was OK, but it didn’t do anything for me because I couldn’t get around it. I’m up against a flat surface. With clay, you really have to have an understanding of form and volume; you can’t fake it.”

    Hamilton focused on his work, including painting, but his friend Duffy says that later Hamilton would comment that, in the white-dominated art world, he sometimes felt “white by day and black by night.” “We were studying European art,” Hamilton says. “The only African-American history of art that I got was this little bitty section on African art. That was about it.”

    One of Hamilton’s teachers once told former Speed Museum director Peter Morrin that Hamilton struggled to get his work in on time, instead turning it all in on the last day of the semester. But he did so well, the teacher said, she had to give him an A.

    Trying to understand his devotion to art, Bernadette took a class to see what all the fuss was about. “When we started dating, I took an introduction-to-art class to see what his life was like,” she says. “I had no interest.” Nonetheless, her family saw promise in the relationship.

    He and Bernadette lived in a one-bedroom west Louisville apartment with a bathroom down the hall. Two years into school, in 1968, their son Eddie was born. (He would be followed by Kendra a decade later.) Bernadette put her schooling on hold. He worked as a busboy at and held other jobs. For a time, he had no car. When he got paid, he’d cash his check at a liquor store and walk 12 blocks to buy infant formula.

    He and Bernadette formulated a plan: They’d both become teachers — a solid, reliable profession — get a house and raise a family. First, he’d finish his degree and get a teaching accreditation; then she’d do the same. “My goal was, we were gonna both be schoolteachers,” she says. “I remember when he came home and said, ‘I’m gonna quit. I’m working for Barney.’ Nothing ever entered my head to say, ‘You can’t do that.’”

     

    After graduating in 1969, Hamilton took a string of jobs to pay the rent while Bernadette took night-school courses. That included working at the Jacob Levy & Brothers hardware store on 12th Street, painting the advertisements that appeared in the Sunday paper. Then he found a good-paying job — $100 a week — working the graveyard shift at the Army ammunition plant in Charlestown, Indiana, stamping USA on artillery shells as they came down a conveyor belt. Sitting on a curb outside during a break one night, he drifted off to sleep.

    “I just wanted to sit down and rest,” he says, recalling being woken by a manager. “Cat comes along and kicks my foot. He done took my badge off my uniform and said, ‘Guess what? You’re fired.’” Hamilton wonders today if the person sees his portrait on Glassworks and thinks, “Ain’t that the man I fired? And he’s on the billboard now?”

    A turning point came when he joined a collective of black artists called the Louisville Art Workshop. At its center was the boisterous G.C. Coxe, the former doorman for the Lyric. Coxe was often viewed as the dean of Louisville’s black artists. He’d mentored artists like Sam Gilliam, now 85, who moved to Washington, D.C., and whose paintings can now sell for more than $1 million, and the late Bob Thompson, whose work has been in the Whitney Museum in New York. Also among the group was Robert Douglas, now University of Louisville emeritus professor of art history and pan-African studies. At the time, black artists struggled to get shows at white-owned galleries. “So we created an avenue for ourselves,” Douglas says. Coxe invited Hamilton to join the workshop and once told the C-J Hamilton was “full of ambition, full of dreams.”

    Duffy, who was also in the group, says Hamilton “had the Afro, and real big glasses, and he was thin as a rail. If he turned sideways you’d almost miss him.” The workshop, in a house at 35th and Broadway, marked “the beginning of learning Afrocentrism, what African art was all about,” Hamilton says. “For a long time I just sat there and listened.” While the group was getting into African art, they’d debate civil rights. They would talk of pushing for equal access in the art world, how not to lose yourself as a black artist, and artists’ responsibility to their community. “I became a little more militant,” Hamilton says. “OK, you won’t show our work? Aw, hell no. You gotta open these doors.”

    Once, in the late 1970s, Hamilton attended a Speed Museum symposium. “With all due respect,” he began after raising his hand from the crowd, then urging them to bring collectors to more local black art studios. “Three months later,” he says, rapping his hand on a table like someone knocking on a door, “the new collectors were at the door. They didn’t buy anything. But it was opening up.”

    He spent part of the 1970s on his “Junkology” series of found-object assemblages, including pieces of metal he discovered on the road. The effort was helped by a neighborhood scrap collector known as “Bootsy,” who would leave pieces of metal or other odds and ends at Hamilton’s front door.

    Hamilton vowed not to “suck up” to art critics, but he and his fellow artists would scour the Sunday arts sections of the newspaper to see if they’d be written up. “We all longed to be written up in the Sunday paper,” Hamilton says. He still remembers his first mention: a brief about a showing at Spalding.

    Meanwhile, Bernadette was working as a third-grade teacher at Valley Elementary School. To earn money, Hamilton was making processional crosses, Christ figures, candleholders and other liturgical objects for churches such as Augustine Catholic Church at 13th Street and Broadway.

    In 1978, Hamilton spent less than $10,000 from money donated by early patrons and supporters to purchase the 19th-century building on Shelby Street and turn it into his studio. He shared it with Duffy and others, including Coxe. It was a heady time of late nights, work, jazz, art critiques and long talks about the problems of the day. “Sometimes he wouldn’t get home until 2 or 3 a.m. while working on a project,” Bernadette says. “Me and the little baby just kept right on sleeping.”

    Kendra Hamilton-Wynn, Hamilton’s daughter, remembers parties with artists and friends from church, going to art shows and Hamilton picking her up from the J. Graham Brown School downtown. “I remember he would have come home with plaster on his pants, smelling of clay,” she says. “Sometimes he’d set up a little table in the family room to work on a small maquette.”

    The work that ultimately grew out of all this fertile ground, the work that would define and consume him, “started quite by accident,” he says.

     

    In the early 1980s, a Hamilton friend, the late artist and Smithsonian curator Kenneth Young, was at a conference in Washington, D.C., when he ran into another museum curator from Hampton University in Virginia. The HU curator asked Young if he knew anyone who could create a Booker T. Washington memorial. “Ken said, ‘Yeah, my boy Ed Hamilton in Louisville,’” Hamilton says. “They wanted a heroic figure. I had to show them I could do a realistic Booker T. Washington.” He went to the Western Library at 10th and Chestnut streets and pulled every book he could find on Washington. A picture of him talking and pointing is ultimately what Hamilton would sculpt.

    Hamilton dedicated Booker T. Washington in 1983. He took his wife and family to the unveiling in a little station wagon. If Young “wouldn’t have run into (the Hampton curator), I probably wouldn’t be doing this thing today,” Hamilton says.

    For his sculptures, Hamilton used to weld a metal structure, like a skeleton, then pack it with Styrofoam and put clay on top. Now he creates a model and sends it to a company that digitally enlarges it and turns it into a dense foam material that Hamilton can sand. Hamilton carves it out in pieces. “(The company will) do an arm, a leg, a body, a head, and send it to me,” he says. “I have to figure out how to make it stand up. Then I refine it and put a layer of clay on it.” He used to use Bright’s foundry to cast his work in bronze, but when it closed he adopted the Falls Foundry in Portland, which he uses to this day. It’s filled with rubber molds, molten bronze, superheated fires and whirring drills and polishers. On a recent day, workers were casting one of his sculptures and burnishing small pieces for a Washington, D.C., gift shop.

    After completing the Booker T. Washington piece, Hamilton thought the work would come calling, but months turned into years before he was commissioned to create a 12-foot-tall sculpture of boxer Joe Louis, which he finished and installed in Detroit in 1985. “The whole black (historical figure) thing started with Booker T. And then the Joe Lewis thing popped up,” he says. “And I guess once you do one, somebody sees it, and so the next thing you know….” Hamilton became increasingly sought after for such projects. 

    By 1990, he’d read about another competition. “Oh, shit,” he remembers thinking, “Amistad.” The job was to memorialize Joseph Cinqué, one of the enslaved Africans aboard the Spanish ship. Hamilton won that commission too, creating In Memory of Joseph Cinqué, a three-sided narrative that tells the story of Cinqué, who led a mutiny aboard Amistad in 1839. The sculpture was dedicated in 1992 in New Haven, Connecticut. (Retired C-J editor Merv Aubespin presented a copy of the Amistad sculpture to Nelson Mandela during a trip to Johannesburg, South Africa.) That same year Hamilton was invited to compete for the D.C. memorial for black Civil War soldiers. He began work in late 1995 on the $175,000 commission. “I didn’t grow up seeing statues of myself,” Hamilton once told the C-J. “It’s so important to a segment of society that got left out of public sculpture. We all knew about the Civil War, but we didn’t know the contribution these guys made.”

    John Begley, former director of the Louisville Visual Art Association, says Hamilton has “the ability to create clothing, articles like a mess kit, that are realistic, and combine that with a kind of portraiture that makes these people real,” while succeeding in portraying “some sort of metaphor — strength, power or integrity of the person.”

    Hamilton’s momentum and earnings, which would reach into the hundreds of thousands for a project, meant he was able to make a living. Douglas, the former U of L professor, says this might have helped Hamilton keep his family intact and make good on his risks and promises to Bernadette. “People talk about artists — they want to break through and be accepted and get paid enough. But it breaks their life up,” Douglas says. “The only thing worse than that is a real junkie on drugs. The drug is your art.”

     

    On a warm night in July, Hamilton is wearing a fedora, a red bowtie and a gray suit, sitting alongside his wife in the back of a golf cart at the head of dozens marching through Waterfront Park to a drum corps. It’s Juneteenth, the celebration of the emancipation of slavery, delayed by weather, and Hamilton is leading participants through the park to his Lincoln statue, flanked by haunting sculpted scenes of slaves packed together in chains. It has been a decade since he dedicated it. 

    As Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” plays on speakers, local and state elected leaders, TV cameras, musicians and artists, dancers in African dresses and activists in Black Lives Matter T-shirts mingle around him. He poses for photos and hugs old friends. “Hey baby, how are you,” the ever-cool Hamilton says to one.

    Cameras surround him for an interview. 

    “This site is for everybody to be part of the legacy of Lincoln,” he says, smiling and looking at the crowds. “I always said if you do good work they would find you. And to be embraced by your community? I feel very humble about that.

    “I love you, Louisville,” he says.

    “We love you,” a cameraman shoots back. 

    While the speeches touch on the complexities of Lincoln’s views toward slavery, a reminder surfaces: politics and sculptures are no strangers these days. In recent years, the nation has faced a reckoning over Confederate-related monuments, leading to their often-controversial removal. Hamilton agrees with removing statues but says not to blame the artists. 

    Hamilton himself isn’t immune to the clash of politics and sculpture. Just take one of his latest pieces. It’s reportedly an eight-foot statue he did of John Schnatter, Louisville’s pizza magnate, who was ousted and disgraced in 2018 after uttering a racial slur on an investor call. Hamilton does not want to talk about it, or have it photographed. Commissioned by the company, it was meant to stand outside Papa John’s headquarters in Jeffersontown. It’s being cast in bronze and going to Schnatter now, but it’s unclear where it will end up. What Hamilton thinks of the affair isn’t clear, but, he says of Schnatter, “He made his bed; he’s lying in it.”

    It wasn’t the only project that fits oddly into his canon or that failed to come to fruition. There was the planned 155-foot stainless-steel statue of Jesus off Dixie Highway above the old Waverly Hills tuberculosis sanitorium. It was proposed in 1996 by businessman Robert Alberhasky after a trip to see Christ the Redeemer in Brazil. But funding fell short after Hamilton unveiled a design of Jesus with “no certain gender or race,” the C-J reported.

    Hamilton is revered by artists of color across Louisville for his work and open-door collaboration, says former Kentucky Poet Laureate Frank X Walker, who wrote poetry about York’s journey on the Lewis and Clark Expedition, gaining inspiration from Hamilton’s studio as he sculpted. “Whenever I got writer’s block, I would just go and stare at his clay version and almost immediately leave inspired. The first time I saw the completed face on the armature, I stayed awake all weekend writing,” says Walker, who would jam drafts of poems through the mail slot at Hamilton’s studio.

    Hamilton says, “Sometimes I’m a little bit embarrassed about getting all these awards. When I go past Ninth Street, there’s a big old banner on the wall. How do you deal with that? I appreciate it, but I don’t get high-falutin’. I consider myself a person who is lucky to be here, lucky to have the talent I have. If people honor that, I’m humble. I’ve done enough things to seal my legacy here. If I expire tomorrow, I have no regrets.”

    That includes not leaving Louisville for greener pastures. His daughter once told him he might be rich if he’d left for New York. She noted, however, that Prince never really left Minneapolis. Hamilton had the same talk with Bright years ago.

    “Barney,” Hamilton said, “how come you never left town?”

    “Well, I had the work here,” Bright replied.

    Hamilton took Bright’s death hard. “He was like a mentor, a father, an uncle,” Hamilton says. “He will always be with me.

    “There are times when I wish I’d gone overseas to Paris to study and New York. But, shit, I’d rather be a big fish in a little pond. Once I got rolling and things were happening, I saw no need to leave. And I don’t know if I’d have made it somewhere else.”

    Duffy believes that, at times, Hamilton has felt boxed in by his success. “The money was good and all, but doing all the studies of those figures, and having to deal not only with what the committee wants but keeping within guidelines . . . it took a lot out of his work. He loved doing metal stuff. Welding. But he had to drop that in order to make a living and keep the studio open.”

    Douglas says Hamilton’s focus on heroic African-American public sculptures has been both a blessing and a curse: “An artist can get locked in. Most artists, once they become known, people want to buy what they’re known for. It can be a curse on their creativity,” he says. “But without the patronage, you can’t survive.”

    Hamilton’s daughter is working to turn his studio into a nonprofit incubator with a gift shop and a working studio for an artist-in-residence. That would require archiving piles of material and fixes such as brickwork repair. “There are pieces, plaster heads or original casts — stuff that’s just kind of priceless,” she says.

    “Dad is 72. He’ll be 73 in February. You can push clay for so long. But we have to figure out what to do. Not just preserve his legacy. But that day is going to come, and I don’t want to have a situation where we have to sell it.”

    How long will Hamilton keep working? He’s not sure. “I’m getting too old to compete with youngsters,” he says. But he scoffs at the idea of retiring. “I don’t know what I’ll do after this,” he says, “but I’ll probably die with clay in my hands, man.”

     

    This originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline ‘“All That Clay Has Been Reborn.”’ To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Photo by William DeShazer, williamdeshazer.com

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