William Hawkins

In the midst of a seminal essay entitled “Perception and Mind,” Henri Bergson suddenly stopped to point out that nobody could get through day-to-day life by looking at the world as metaphysicians do, because if you did, you would be unable to cross the street without being run over. I’ve always thought that this remark might also apply to primitive painters. It seems tome a mistake to regard the imagination of an artist like William Hawkins as being somehow childlike, for his vision strikes me as speculative, rather than merely intuitive; it is meditation carried to the point of impracticality. Hawkins, who worked as a trucker serving the building trades in Columbus, Ohio, for fifty years, is obviously able to see the world in some sort of normative way. Yet I can’t help wondering how he ever could have done anything as commonsensible as drive a truck if he always saw reality in the peculiar, unique way that these paintings suggest.

As indicated by the titles of many of his paintings—such as Quaker Square Hilton, Tower Motor Inn, and State Office Building (Hawkins did a series of paintings with this last title)—he probably still keeps up with the heavy construction business in Ohio. Maybe he only developed his present way of looking at buildings and other kinds of spatial relations after he retired from truck driving and began to paint. That was over 15 years ago, when he was 75. You are mindful of his years when you look at his work because he paints across the bottom of each picture, “WILLIAM L. HAWKINS BORN KY JULY 27 1895.” The inscription runs as a band from one side of the image clear over to the other, except that he usually runs out of space before he gets to the end so the “95” in 1895 winds up on top of the “18.” It’s a little like that old sight gag in the form of a sign that reads “Plan Ahead,” where the last three or four letters are all bunched up at the right-hand margin.

Planning ahead is clearly not one of the things Hawkins does as a painter. My guess is that he conceptualizes the building that is his main subject first, then fills in foliage, sky, and foreground afterward wherever they seem appropriate. Sometimes these surroundings are quite realistic touches, such as the parking lot in front of the Tower Motor Inn. But growing up the side of the same painting, rather like a stalk of multicolored brussel sprouts, is a tree that makes it clear there is no ground plan to the picture, no constructed perspective, no desire to create an illusionistic space. The tree surely has the place and shape it does to meet the needs of the picture space, rather than to reproduce the three-dimensional object from which it was drawn. It is, more than anything else, a texture on the board surface, and it is there so that its daubing and dotting can contrast with the way the paint has been smoothed down on the building facade next to it. The two subjects come together here as a reflection on picture-making and perception rather than an imitation of reality. Painting becomes a way that a mute, unlettered man thinks about what he sees.

Colin Westerbeck