Isolation is a circumstance that seems to define the worlds of many outsider artists. Whether the isolation is cultural, racial, economic, geographic or psychological, these individuals’ lives and artistic expressions exist apart from the dominant or mainstream currents of society. The life and art of Hawkins Bolden are, in essence, the embodiment of isolation. “I felt a deep affinity for what he was doing, even though I was privileged with education and white, I understood it thoroughly, it was in the place I was from. I didn’t think Hawkins was anything different than I was. I felt close to him as a fellow artist,” said Houston artist Michael Galbreath. “At the time [in the 1970s, attending art school in his hometown of Memphis] I was seeing Rauschenberg and I saw the same kind of gestures, the same use of materials, picking up the world and rearranging it, and it was all right there with Hawkins. One of the interesting things about Hawkins Bolden is his engagement with the world sculpturally, how it is so tactile and also his sense of space, given that he is blind. He was engaging the world, figuring it out in a direct physical way. There is also the aspect of a frayed tether to Africa and African artistic traditions associated with protective totems. I recognized in Hawkins a direct link to that, his ancestral place,” said Galbreth—Jay Wehnert, Intuitive Eye
Hawkins Bolden’s family history is deeply ingrained in the Deep South, where slavery, the Civil War and the Underground Railroad intertwine with the region’s history. He spent his life in Memphis, where he grew up in poverty and suffered from symptoms of epilepsy after he was hit in the head with a baseball during a game. Bolden lost his eyesight at age 8 as a result of the injury, and never saw again.
The artist’s grandfather was a slave. According to his sister Elizabeth Bolden Williams, “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 relative from down in Georgia who talked Geechee [an African American dialect spoken along the Atlantic coast].” Memphis was a major stop on the Underground Railroad; one former home was converted into the present-day SlaveHaven museum. Although it’s unknown whether or not Bolden’s family has direct ties with the Underground Railroad in Memphis, his art is nevertheless a product of a place where these elements of American history converged.