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The Cut-Up

Luther Hampton carves out a multimedia niche.



There are sculptures everywhere -- on top of the TV, on the floor, on the kitchen counter, stuffed in corners -- and they are made out of anything and everything. The nude female form, stretched into a variety of poses, has been carved into wood, stone, steak bones, and walnuts. We've entered the world of Luther Hampton -- a two-room apartment in the downtown area that doubles as the artist's living space and studio.

Our guide is Hampton's goddaughter Lisa Carter, and the atmosphere is overwhelming. There's the artwork in all its shapes, sizes, and forms, and then there's the man who radiates the kind of wisdom that you gain as you move through life.

Hampton, a 60-year-old native of the city, has been creating art for years. He's been around the world with the Navy, and throughout his life he's learned a certain degree of resourcefulness that seems to be exactly what's missing from today's throw-away society. He uses anything he can find to create art. He even created a sculpture from one of his own teeth that had fallen out.

"Anything can become an artform," he says. "All man has to do is use some intelligence on it and make it into something."

Twelve of his works, made of wood, bronze, stone, and clay, will be on display at 387 S. Main during a two-day show November 29th and 30th. For the opening reception, the 1973 graduate of the Memphis Academy of Art (now Memphis College of Art) will be on hand to talk with the public, and he hopes to set up a booth where he can sketch people who come in. Ron Boozer and Erica Harris from the Greater Imani Church will be providing music, and Hampton will be showing slides of his work.

"A lot of artists won't get recognition until they have passed on into the next life or wherever we go from here. I wanted to see his work being displayed in this life," says Carter, the show's organizer. "So much of his work is stuck in the corners of people's rooms or in a warehouse, and I thought that those pieces deserved to come into the light."

During the show's opening reception, Hampton will be unveiling his latest sculpture, Praise Phase 1, a life-size black walnut carving of a female nude giving praise to her deity. The nude female form is one that he utilizes often, although he's by no means limited to it. Hampton can carve nearly any shape into anything.

Head of a God resembles the bearded head of Zeus carved into a log, while Alligator Woman is an elongated, slightly abstract female body with the head of a scaly reptile. Spirit of the Dance, created from a small forked stick, is a dancing female with one leg lifted.

A tiny sculpture atop his television resembles an angel. Its head is carved out of a walnut, and the wings are made from the jawbone of a buffalo fish. He says he carved it after having a dream about angels.

Hampton also paints, sketches, and even writes the occasional poem. His bedroom walls are clustered with portraits of loved ones as well as self-portraits he's painted throughout the years. "I use a lot of faces because everybody's got one," he explains.

Hampton, one of 11 children, grew up in a house behind LeMoyne-Owen College. His father, Lewis, was a well-known upholsterer and his mother was a beautician. He says he knew he had talent by the time he was in kindergarten because he was always creating artwork for the classroom and was "able to write my name pretty fancy."

He graduated from Booker T. Washington High School and went on to join the Navy, where he served from age 18 to 21. While in the Navy, he managed to continue his artistic pursuits by painting murals on the ship's walls and using his military-issued knife to carve into whatever he could get his hands on. "I was always scratching on something," he says.

He returned to Memphis after he got out of the service and enrolled at the Memphis Academy of Art. After graduating, he served in various teaching positions throughout Arkansas and West Tennessee.

Today, the retired art teacher spends his days either walking the streets of Memphis picking up objects to carve or holed up in his small apartment whittling. He wears a leather vest -- pockets overflowing with tools and various objects that have creative potential. Sometimes, he even carves as he's walking.

He's created numerous pieces that have been distributed all over the world, mostly as gifts, but he says the numbers have no importance because he creates every day. Art is his life, his therapy, his entire world, and everything he creates has a special meaning.

"If I carve a piece of wood that's 150 years old, I expect it to say something other than just 'big ol' log'," he says.

Hampton's work has been shown in numerous shows and galleries throughout the city, and he's won several awards, including first place in the national Veterans Administration Creative Arts Festival in 2000. He says he usually has at least one show a year, but he doesn't really think too much of them.

"I show every day. Sometimes, my studio is where you see me on a park bench carving," he says. "If you see me sitting by myself with a knife in my hand, I'm thinking of something to create. Some days I'm down in the parking lot [of my apartment complex], and some days I'm sitting down by the river whittling away."

Opening reception: 387 South Main, 5-10 p.m. Friday, November 29th.

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