Thursday, September 25, 2014

Gerald Hawkes (1943-1998) The Man Who Loved the Stars/The Peanut, 1979.
Matchsticks and glue. Collection of The Banneker-Douglass Museum.

Matchsticks as Medium 

Can you possibly guess how many wood matchsticks artist Gerald Hawkes (1943-1998) used to create his extraordinary sculpture, The Man Who Loved the Stars/The Peanut? I don't have a clue, but we have had a number of visitors who started to count and gave up, with good reason! Thousands and hundreds of thousands, would be my best guess, but probably many more than that.

Hawkes, the son of Ernest Hawkes, a crane operator at Sparrows Point, and Luvenia Hawkes, a homemaker and "visionary" of sorts, was born and educated in Baltimore. Both parents were church deacons, as Gerald  also came to be as an adult. After attending Carver Vocational-Technical High School, Hawkes taught at Merganthaler Vocational-Technical High School and worked as a printer in Baltimore and New York. Printing is a precise business and this precision dovetails well with his interest in the geometric matchstick form because, in printing, "Everything has to line up."1 Along with his career in printing, Hawkes had a stint in the U.S. Army and received medical training for which he held a position as a medical technician and then at the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center. 

Hawkes began his matchstick creations sometime in the early 1970s and by the 1980s his sculptures began to be noticed by galleries nationwide and beyond. The matchsticks, which have the sulpher heads removed by either burning or washing, are stained with various solutions such as berry juice, coffee, tea, etc. and put together with Elmer's glue. The sequences of his life were without major incidence--working full-time, creating matchstick sculptures, church participation and service in the National Guard--until August 1984. Hawkes was driving home from a late night shift at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center when his car broke down. He got out on North Avenue to telephone for assistance and was attacked and severely beaten by men with pipes and sticks. It left Hawkes with frontal lobe brain damage, affecting his short term memory and the inability to taste or smell. Hawkes further described this event saying, "I lost everything…But I think God set me aside to send a message. I'm not possessed or anything, but I am just amazed at this stuff as everyone else."

Following this traumatic event, Hawkes's life fell apart in many ways, but his sculptures remained a constant source of comfort and creativity. The range of matchstick sculptures are fascinating and intriguing. Busts, tables, lamps, boxes with drawers--an assortment of objects are all veneered with carefully culled matchsticks. The sculpture on view in the Mitchell Gallery gives homage to two prominent African Americans: Benjamin Banneker (1731-1806), an African American surveyor, astronomer and author who was instrumental in the rights of slaves, and George Washington Carver (1864-1943), scientist, botanist, inventor and educator who is probably best known for his many uses of the peanut. Colorfully stained matchsticks, pieced and glued together in perfect smooth alignment, make up the portraits. In Banneker's portrait there is a contrasting section of broken pieces in random positions next to the North star. The vision, the number of little sticks, and craftsmanship involved in this work is amazing and is certainly an honorable tribute to these African Americans who also struggled to find sense in life and recognition for the importance of their work.

It is worth noting that Hawkes includes the letter "H" in his works, standing for health, happiness, and Hawkes. Count the matchsticks for yourself. Be grateful. Be inspired.

Lucinda Dukes Edinberg
Art Educator
September 26, 2014