William Hawkins and the Art of Astonishment

Joanne Cubbs, Eugene W. Metcalf, Folk Art, September 1, 1997

“William Hawkins painted the world and its wonders. His universe was inhabited by grinning Tasmanian tigers, red-eyes rhinos, spotted turquoise cheetahs, and other exotic creatures. In his paintings, he traveled imaginatively to amazing places, capturing scenes from Amercia’s Wild West, the snow-draped land of the Alps, and the mysterious Taj Mahal. Hawkins’ nearly encyclopedic repertoire of subjects not only traversed great distances but also spanned millenia, from the birth of Jesus Christ to the death of George Washington, from the gigantic dinosaurs of the earth’s evolutionary past to images of the contemporary urban landscape surrounding the artist’s home in Columbus, Ohio.


In one major work, Con[q]uest of the Moon #1, Hawkins’ fantastic journeys finally led him to the far reaches of outer space. This painting, which chronicles the first manned landing on the moon, depicts a lone black astronaut planting a giant U.S. flag on the moon’s surface. Set against the dark background of an endless cosmos, the remote figure is framed by an explosion of red stars and yellow comets that resembles the fiery apocalypse of a science-fiction movie. A flurry of expressionistic brush strokes further illuminates the scene of this heroic moment in the history of the twentieth century.


Ironically, the source for Hawkins’ fantastic work was a composite of familiar popular images documenting the Apollo astronauts and their first trip to the moon in July 1969. Reproduced in Life magazine, National Geographic, and countless newspapers across the country, the famous lunar photographs showed Edwin Aldrin and Neil Armstrong raising the U.S. flag on the Sea of Tranquility. Years later, when Hawkins appropriated these unforgettable images, he infused his work with the collective memories and symbolic meanings that they inspired. Adopting and refashioning the icons of public imagination. Hawkins created a body of work that is both grounded in and redefines our common understanding of the meaning of our history and culture.”....