Exploring the legacy of local artist Ed Hamilton
Story and Photos by Josh Miller
I moved to Louisville, KY in the summer of 2007 to start my undergraduate studies at Bellarmine University. Since then, one of the names I most associate with art in Louisville is Ed Hamilton. Over the years, my numerous interactions with his bronze memorials along the waterfront, of Lincoln and York, the Smoketown Monument created with artist Zephra Mae-Miller (“The Bag Lady of Louisville”) in Smoketown south of Broadway and seeing Ed and his wife Bernadette at fundraisers and art openings, have reiterated his connection not only to the artistic history of our city but made him an embodiment of what art can do.
Walking into Ed Hamilton Studios on South Shelby Street, I passed through decades of artistic history. On my left, I saw a small sculpture from 1965 created by Hamilton in 12th grade at Shawnee High School. Above it is the model for the Smoketown Monument, shaped in the form of boxing gloves and celebrating a neighborhood’s history including the work of Fred Stoner, who trained boxers like Muhammad Ali. The gloves form the shape of a heart like the “heart of the community,” Hamilton said. To my right is the bronze face of Barney Bright, a sculptor Hamilton first admired and then worked with in his early years. Directly ahead hangs a drawing of the Slavery Bas-Relief from the Lincoln Memorial situated to overlook the Ohio River between Louisville’s Waterfront Park Great Lawn and the Big Four Bridge.
Hamilton, in his signature studio attire, works on one of several models for a memorial for the late David Jones. Hamilton picked up his yellow coffee mug and started to share some early memories. “I grew up downtown, in the heart of the Black business district,” he said. “My dad was a tailor and my mom was a barber.” As an only child, Hamilton’s endless curiosity kept him busy, finding things like boxes to convert into horses and cars. “I experienced a lot of smaller portraits of people in liquor stores, like Jim Beam,” he said. Hamilton recalled seeing a sculpture outside the library and the impact it had on him at an early age as he touched its feet. He described teachers, including Harriet O’Malley in junior high and Patsy Griffith in high school, who saw his talent and encouraged him to pursue an art degree. “I wasn’t on the college track at that time,” he said. Hamilton graduated from the Louisville School of Art in 1969.
We moved from the studio to the Lincoln Memorial, sitting in the shade on a bench that Hamilton noted was not there before. “My breakthrough came with Barney Bright; the day I met him changed my life,” said Hamilton. “I was teaching ceramics at Iroquois High School and went to King’s Ceramics Shop on Frankfort Avenue. I’d seen Barney’s piece ‘Earth Mother’ at the Speed.” Barney Bright’s studio was located adjacent to the ceramics shop, and in 1973, Ed says destiny enabled them to meet. Bright stepped out to check his mail as Hamilton sat in his car, having never gotten up the courage to knock on the frosted glass doors before. “I slowly got out of the car, walked around and introduced myself to him,” said Hamilton. As it turns out, Bright had seen one of Hamilton’s sculptures and asked if he was available to work with him on a project later that year, the first of multiple collaborations and learning opportunities. “I tell young people, learn your craft, do it well, find someone better to learn from and move on,” said Hamilton.
Looking at the Lincoln Memorial, Hamilton recounts the design process, which is documented in his book, “Creating the Lincoln Memorial at Waterfront Park.” We talk about the bronze reliefs and he notes that this Lincoln is pre-President Lincoln, “You can tell because he doesn’t have a beard,” said Hamilton. Pulling out a handkerchief, he walks over to the first relief of young Lincoln and starts dusting it off. “All that I’ve done to create memorials, none of it I learned in school.” Hamilton looked out across the memorial, sharing that, “When I was growing up, there was never anything in this town that looked like me, or my father, or my mother. Everything was White. Therefore, you never felt a part of something. The only thing you were a part of was your little enclave where you grew up. So, as I began to get these commissions, first I would go to the Western Branch Library located at 10th and Chestnut Street to learn about who I was doing and their role in history. I have to put something together that makes you think, ‘Oh, this is who he or she was, this is what that incident was all about.’ Now you feel like you are part of that history. You can interact with it. As a sculptor, that is what we are charged to do, to bring to life a good part of the past, a part that was never told, a part that children of color can walk up to and say, ‘I didn’t know we were a part of this. You mean, I can make this? I can do this?’ That’s what these bronzes do.”
Pulling out my laptop, I showed him photos of the Lincoln Memorial during a winter snow taken while I was out for an early morning run. Seeing his art throughout the seasons at different times of day brought them to life and enhanced their impact. The Slavery relief, which depicts what Lincoln would have seen on the shores of the Ohio River — shackled, enslaved Black men and women marched onto ships — was amplified by the snow. “That sends chills up my back. You can feel the chill in their bodies,” said Hamilton.
Our conversation moved from Lincoln to the memorial of York, who sits overlooking the Ohio on the Belvedere. “James J. Holmberg from the Filson Historical Society called me and said, ‘Ed, we want to do a York Memorial.’ I asked him, ‘Who is York?’” Holmberg gave Hamilton the book “In Search of York” by Robert B. Betts, which refutes the myths that surrounded York and put him in context, such that he was freed from slavery after the expedition with Lewis and Clark. “The expedition was one of the few times that a diverse group voted to make a decision together,” Hamilton said. “York hunted, saved lives, made moccasins; he did everything everyone else would do and then some. He [York] had more power in the three years in the wilderness than he did before or after.” After the expedition, while others got accommodations, money and went to the White House, York got nothing. “He never got any land or money. All he wanted was his freedom,” said Hamilton. “William Clark never granted it.”
Back at his studio, we walked by a mural recently painted on the side of his building of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. Hamilton pointed to pieces he referenced during our conversation, including the model for York on the Belvedere. The space is currently in the process of being converted into a nonprofit called the Ed Hamilton Studios & Visitors Center dedicated to preserving his legacy and influence on the artistic community in Louisville at the recommendation of his daughter, Kendra Hamilton-Wynn, the CEO of Pier 77 Media. “The idea for Ed Hamilton Studios & Visitor’s Center came to me when we were updating Dad’s website in 2017,” shared Hamilton-Wynn. “I started thinking about what we could do as a family to preserve his artistic legacy and a visitor’s center and museum was the most obvious choice. I was so enriched as a child when I spent time at Dad’s studio, I want other children to have the same experience and exposure to boundless creativity. This will be an opportunity for us as a family to share him not only with the community of Louisville and the state of Kentucky but with the world on a grander scale. Ed Hamilton Studios & Visitors Center will be an immersive experience for all people. We plan to have a working studio with an artist in residence program, gallery, workshop space, audio/visual elements with augmented reality and gift shop.”
Hamilton said that it’s “through the lens of bronze” that people who have not seen themselves depicted as a part of our nation’s history are “able to see something that looks like them. These pieces, my work, are about identity. For so many years, people haven’t felt visible. It’s not about rewriting history, it’s about telling true history.”