Writing

When Art Becomes Story: The Influence of Art on a Writer

Shelley Pearsall/Photo courtesy of the author

Editor's Note:

A former teacher and museum historian, Shelley Pearsall is now a full-time author. Her first novel, Trouble Don’t Last, won the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction. Her latest novel is The Seventh Most Important Thing. For our Under the Influence series, in which authors reflect on their literary influences, Shelley talks about the work of art that left her thinking about ark for the gorgeous sake of art.

Whenever I was asked that ubiquitous question in elementary school, So, what do you want to be when you grow up? I’d always answer author first, artist second. (A very distant third was veterinarian, mainly because teachers seemed to expect you to have three respectable career options.)

In college, I attempted to major in both art and writing. If the writing didn’t work out, art could be my fallback option. That was the theory at least.

However, a few studio art classes in college soon convinced me that I didn’t have the eye, or the originality — or, okay, the talent to be a professional artist.   Plus, I didn’t wear Birkenstocks or tie-dye, which seemed to be prerequisites for most of the serious art students I knew. And I was abysmally bad at drawing people.

Eventually, I became a writer.

But art remained an interest of mine, lurking in the background like the shadow of a pentimento. It finally made an appearance in my latest novel, The Seventh Most Important Thing — a story inspired by an unusual work of outsider art in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

I first saw the piece twenty-five years ago as a college student — proof that influences can take a long time to germinate. (Or that I’m an incredibly slow writer.) It was part of a traveling exhibit at the time, displayed in a regional folk art museum in Williamsburg, Virginia.

What I recall most vividly was how much the artwork surprised me. Picture a typical folk art museum with the usual quaint portraits of doll-faced family groups, galloping horses, and idyllic villages. Then imagine coming upon a small, exhibit room containing something entirely different. You step into the darkened space and discover a shimmering shrine inside: a room filled with mysterious gold and silver wings, thrones, altars, and pillars.

I recall double-checking the visitor map to make sure I was still in the same museum. Had I somehow stepped into a nearby church by mistake? An Egyptian tomb exhibit? Where in the heck was I?

Moving closer, I read the artwork’s enigmatic title: The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly. And moving even closer, I realized that the objects weren’t really gold and silver pieces at all. They were bits and pieces of discarded junk. Trash.

Old bottles, jars, light bulbs, table legs, and cardboard had been transformed into ornate thrones and tables. Each object was meticulously wrapped in tiny scraps of gold and silver foil, layer upon layer of it, to give the appearance of a spectacular shrine. It was hard to imagine the incredible amount of time the work had taken, or the kind of person who would embark upon this task.

According to the exhibit text, the sculpture was the creation of one man. A Washington, D.C., janitor named James Hampton had spent the final fourteen years of his life working alone in an unheated garage to build this elaborate display — his own personal vision of heaven.

Heaven. Not something you encounter every day in the art world.

Despite its odd subject matter, something about this artwork captivated me: maybe it was the almost-palpable loneliness of the piece, or the dogged determination of the artist to bring his personal vision to life, or his complete lack of interest in public recognition. For more than a decade, James Hampton had labored alone, without fanfare, to create art for art’s sake — a nearly impossible concept to grasp in today’s world of rampant social-media sharing and instant celebrity.

Set in the 1960s, The Seventh Most Important Thing attempts to put the artwork and the artist in a fictional context by asking the questions: What if someone — an angry teenage boy — somehow met this reclusive artist? What if each piece of the sculpture, each piece of junk, had another purpose? And what if these pieces could collectively save — or, at least, change — a kid’s life?

Two years ago, I visited the sculpture again in its permanent home in the Smithsonian American Art Museum. While the visit was, ostensibly, a research trip for my book, on a deeper level, I think it was an attempt to see whether the artwork would have the same impact on me as it had twenty-five years earlier. Would it still have an impact on other people too?

Although the piece is displayed in a less dramatic space than where I originally saw it — and seems to have lost a bit of its earlier shimmer, I can say that the sculpture still retains its quiet, transformative power. It still stops museum visitors in their tracks. It still makes people shake their heads and wonder aloud about its purpose.

Maybe it changes a few lives, who knows …

For me, it continues to be an influential visual touchstone: a powerful reminder of what it means to stubbornly resist the pull of the world — and to take the time, every once in a while, to create something solely for the sake of the art.

Read more from authors on influence here.