Studio visit: Through the eyes of Celestine Wilson Hughes

IMG_8062 Celestine Wilson Hughes
Celestine Wilson Hughes

Celestine Wilson Hughes drives a school bus. She gets up at 4 a.m. to get to the job on time. And while on the break between driving the students to and from school, she wraps the edges of her bits of glass in foil to prepare them for use in her work.

The glass is sharp and her fingers hurt. The irregular pieces are mostly tiny–many of them smaller than half an inch. Weekends she’s in the cellar studio, assembling the bits and pieces into complex compositions.

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Hughes in her living room.

Hughes didn’t discover her inner artist until she was nearly 50. Growing up, all she knew was that she was different.

Here’s her story:

She went with her friend to a stained glass class, and made a little boat. She was 49 years old. “I knew I was home. When I saw the colors, I was absolutely spellbound. I didn’t know how to do it, but I got in the studio and did it.”

Not that long after the eye-opening class, She was talking to artist Martina Johnson-Allen, who said, I’m looking for artists for a show. “She asked, Are you an artist?

“All I had was my little glass boat, but I said Yes.”

Then Hughes scolded herself. “Oh my god, What did you do Celestine?” Then she put her foot even further in her mouth: “…I work in glass.”

Yesterday, I went on a studio visit–well, really a home visit. The first thing Celestine showed me was a photo of her mother, a beautiful, strong-boned women with an aureole of white hair, who has Alzheimer’s. Memories of her mother’s strength are very much on the daughter’s mind.

IMG_8072 inside Celestine Wilson Hughes' house
Inside Celestine Wilson Hughes’ house, where her work fills every available space.

But besides some family photographs, the house is mostly filled with Celestine’s work. It’s in every nook and cranny–stored under the sofa, tucked behind the furniture, hanging on every wall and from the ceiling, resting on every surface. It’s bursting from its bounds in every way. So is she. While I can see African art references in the work, this is beyond categorization.

It has the intense monomania of outsider art, with wires and beads poking out, with raw edges that jab and meander. Crowned birds perch here and there; irregular heart shapes, snaky metal dreadlocks, and all kinds of shards break from the surface. It’s fabulous.

When I first met Celestine a couple of months ago at a dinner party, artist Charles Burwell told me her work was wild. We were at a dinner/salon event organized by independent curator A.M. Weaver, and Celestine said that photographs didn’t do the work justice. She showed me a photo and I was interested. But I dismissed her comment because all artists complain about how their work looks in photographs.

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A view of Hughes’ work filling her house.

But she’s right. Taking a picture of her stained glass work is like taking a picture of the universe. It’s hard to describe where it begins and where it ends, and what about those edges? In Hughes’ work, the crusty surfaces and the wild planes undulate and layer in ways that are not friendly to two-dimensional records. There’s not a 90 degree angle in sight. Looking at this work is like going on a treasure hunt.

Anyway, Hughes promised Johnson-Allen a piece for the exhibit Healing Sack at the Philadelphia Free Library in 2000.

“I remembered when I was pregnant [with her son Abdul, who’s now 37], I was the happiest person. I’d take off my clothes, look in the mirror and see him moving around. It was amazing that I had life inside me.”

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On Hughes’ business card is an image of her first stained glass sculpture, Bearer of Fruits, inspired by memories of her own pregnant body. It is 40″ x 19″ x 9″ (includes base).

Building on that memory, she made her first stained glass piece, Bearer of Fruits–a stained glass sack on a stick, that’s also a woman’s torso.

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Celestine Wilson Hughes, an as yet untitled piece, with a big “onion” butt. The surface undulates, and the woman is surrounded by birds and flowers.

In all her work, Hughes transforms a tropical goddess of plenty and strength into something highly personal, a woman whose body smashes stereotypes of beauty and who takes charge of her own life. She’s a wild woman, depicted in a manner that cannot be contained. The Bearer of Fruits was only the beginning. She shows me a piece, shrouded in plastic, that she still hasn’t named. It’s a life-sized woman with a big “onion” butt, and birds all around. It’s huge and confident.

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Celestine Wilson Hughes, a cut metal piece, with a rooster shitting hearts.

“We are all interconnected–plant life, human life and animal life. I use birds in my work. I use flowers, lots of flowers. I use lots of hearts.” She also uses lots of other traditional symbols like hands and eyes. Sometimes the symbols are incorporated in the main body of the piece. Sometimes they are attached with wires to orbit beyond the edges.

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This womb in this piece is a heart shape.

She says of the heart-shaped womb in one piece that that’s where a woman’s heart really is. “My work has a lot to do with women. Starting late in life, one of the things I keep asking myself is what is my purpose, what do I want to do with my work? I want to bring women to the place where they recognize, we’re really great people.

“There’s not an empowerment of women. Give women the power they need. I feel I know about being a woman. You can hear about menopause, but until you go through it, you have no idea what it means. For me it’s a point of liberation. My mother wouldn’t even talk about it.”

She starts to talk about the copper sculpture she did for the Village of Arts and Humanities, in Germantown, for the Bottle Tree exhibit (Roberta’s post here). She set out to make something using a material she hadn’t worked with in quite this way. (This is definitely a pattern in her approach to things). She had to battle the material all the way.

“Again, this is that [female] shape. It’s in honor of Lucretia Mott, a Quaker and an abolitionist. She became very vocal. I wondered how she became that way. Not everyone was like that at that time. Somehow, she came out of that same culture…and she found her feet.

“It’s like me coming up as a young child, not knowing where I was going, and raising a son. I found my feet–not know where I was going but then finding a sense of who I am. I think some of us get there faster than others.

A bird detail from a sculpture by Celestine Wilson Hughes
A bird detail from a sculpture by Celestine Wilson Hughes

“In August I turned 60. It’s kind of a scary time. But you know, let’s see what 60 brings. Bring it on.”

In her brief time as an artist, Hughes has shown at the African American Museum of Philadelphia, at the Noyes, and at Penn State. I wonder if she’s been to art school. No. She took a welding class at UArts. She took the stained glass class. And she’s married to Ed Hughes, one of the artists now up at Woodmere in the exhibit of work from the Louis Tanner Moore Collection exhibit.

She shows me a small, brilliantly colored abstract landscape by Hughes with a frieze of cut metal figures above the image. I ask and learn from her that he went to the Academy, and he is doing the public art component on the rebuilt 56th Street El station.

Ed Hughes may be the trained artist, but the house where they live seems to be almost totally hers. She creates pieces that grow organically as she makes them, never doing the planning on how they will hang or hold together. Her husband would prefer that she plan the hanging systems, she said, but as she works, her pieces change, and she can’t quite imagine how should could be limited by something so mundane as a structural plan.

Hughes shows me a book someone lent her of work that inspires her–by outsider artist Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, a 2004 MacArthur Fellow, who makes exuberant fiber and mixed-media works. The relationship between their work is clear.

I ask if Hughes has been to the Gee’s Bend exhibit at the Art Museum. She hasn’t but she’s looking forward to it.

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Celestine Wilson Hughes, Women of the Universe, Do not Drown in Three Feet of Water, stained glass

Hughes shows me a reliquary of sorts, called Women of the Universe, Do not Drown in Three Feet of Water. She turns a large curling red piece of stained glass to unlatch the doors, which open only so far. Behind them hides a stained glass figure of a woman.

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Celestine Wilson Hughes, Women of the Universe, Do not Drown in Three Feet of Water, detail, stained glass; the words are scribbled on the partly visible body of a woman, who is behind the scalloped edges of the two doors.

“I feel like religion has made women second class citizens. No matter what country you’re in, Iran, Iraq, Africa, religion has made them second class citizens. They become the ones who see the [oppressive] practices are carried through.

IMG_8061 Celestine Wilson Hughes
Celestine Wilson Hughes, Women of the Universe, Do not Drown in Three Feet of Water, detail, stained glass

“When I was growing up, nice women did not wear red. It meant you were whorish. That color was dangerous, emboldening. All these things that named women as something they weren’t–those ideas where you can’t take things on in the real world, that’s what my work is. In art you can make it a little more even.”