Perkins Mansion

William L. Hawkins

(Union City, Kentucky, 1895 - 1990, Columbus, Ohio)


Enamel on fiberboard

42 in. x 46 1/2 in. (106.68 cm x 118.11 cm)

Purchased with funds from Elizabeth Firestone Graham Foundation, Contemporary Art Society of Akron, and Museum Acquisition Fund


More Information

One of the most celebrated self-taught artists of the twentieth century, Hawkins spent most of his life in Columbus, Ohio. He focused his art on two main subjects: cityscapes and animals. This painting of the Perkins Stone Mansion was inspired by a postcard sent to Hawkins by Carol Friedman, a former docent at the Akron Art Museum. Using bright colors and broad, flat brushstrokes, Hawkins created an expressive representation of Akron’s historical and architectural landmark. While the building appears to be aflame, Hawkins’ turbulent sky is rather a result of his desire to explore color and reflects the nature of the thick enamel paint he used.


William L. Hawkins Perkins Mansion, 1985 Collection of the Akron Art Museum Even those who have never seen Perkins Mansion would readily agree that William Hawkins's depiction of this Akron landmark is more about the nature of picture making and paint rather than the building's actual appearance. The mansion, completed in 1837 to house the son of one of the city's founders, is now the home of the Summit County Historical Society. Although Hawkins had never visited the site, he had a postcard view of it.1 Like many artists who work from printed images, he chose to use the photograph as a springboard for his imagination. When this painting was made, Hawkins at age ninety was just becoming one of the most sought-after contemporary American self-trained artists—after over six decades of making a living driving delivery trucks, doing house construction and repair, and holding other such jobs around Columbus.2 In the 1930s, Hawkins had returned to a childhood hobby of making art as a means of supplementing his income, but he did not find his mature style or a national audience until 1981.3 Hawkins's economic situation had never allowed him the luxury of indulging in art purely for enjoyment, so he painted subjects he thought would sell, noting, "if you can't sell it, it isn't worth a damn!"4 Cityscapes, including "portraits" of individual buildings, represent about seventy percent of his output. Hawkins may have been motivated to paint such scenes by his firsthand experience of urban renewal and transformation—a major sociological phenomenon of his lifetime—or simply because he suspected that the pleasure of recognizing a well-known site might inspire a sale. His subject matter often allows viewers to "read" a work in different ways, just as his painting style allows certain latitudes of interpretation. The printed illustration was for Hawkins a source of inspiration—a familiar tune upon which he could improvise his own riffs and harmonies, like a jazz musician. Perkins Mansion is typical in its flattening and abstraction of illusionistic, three-dimensional photographic space. Seen from the side, the house's main entrance, with its two-story arcade of white columns, has been transformed into a set of yellow stripes; the shadowed spaces between them have become black rectangles. Most strikingly, Hawkins has changed the blue sky of the postcard image into a Jackson Pollock-like swirl of ominous clouds. From about 1981 to 1986, Hawkins painted on fiberboard panel laid flat on a table, a position that allowed such free-flowing swirl patterns. To form a smooth, glossy background, he poured his paint (usually enamel house paint) directly from the can, entirely covering the fiberboard. Next, he painted in silhouettes of the images; then he added details. He often painted back into areas of still-wet paint, as he did in the sky shown here. Hawkins thought of his multicolored skies as realistic, though on a different level than the instant of reality captured by a photograph. Hawkins told an interviewer that "the sky got a million, trillion different colors. Sometimes it's silver, next time it's red, if the sun is way over. . . . You walk under that sky and it's all kinds of color."5 Added to Perkins Mansion, as to all of Hawkins's paintings, are reminders that these are created images; here we see a painted border or "frame," a title, and a signature with birthdate and birthplace. To him an image was "real" if it had the ability to attract the viewer's eye and interest. "Real" art, to Hawkins, was taking the commonplace—fiberboard, house paint, and a picture postcard—and making something extraordinary. - Barbara Tannenbaum, 2001 1. The card was sent to Hawkins by former Akron Art Museum docent Carol Friedman, who was corresponding with the artist about an exhibition of his work in Akron. 2. Most of the biographical information here is derived from two essays on Hawkins by Gary J. Schwindler, who interviewed the artist extensively and is preparing a monograph on him. See Columbus Museum of Art, 5–10; and Schwindler (1991), 40–45. 3. In 1981 Hawkins befriended a young Columbus artist, Lee Garrett, who suggested that he work larger, use color photographs as well as black and white for inspiration, and paint on fiberboard instead of paper and cardboard scrounged from trash heaps. Garrett also brought Hawkins's work to the attention of the art world, first in Ohio and then in New York. 4. Schwindler, in Columbus Museum of Art, 8. 5. Gary Schwindler, "William L. Hawkins: Myth in the Making?" Dialogue 11 (July/August 1988): 13. Columbus Museum of Art. Popular Images, Personal Visions: The Art of William Hawkins 1895–1990. Columbus, Ohio: Columbus Museum of Art, 1990. Rosenak, Chuck, and Jan Rosenak. Museum of American Folk Art Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century American Folk Art and Artists. New York: Abbeville, 1990. Schwindler, Gary J. "William Hawkins, Master Storyteller." Raw Vision 4 (spring 1991): 40–45.


Title, name and birthdate at bottom, in enamel

African American
Folk Art
Ohio Art
Text in art
United States