A Match Made in Heaven Inspired: Gerald Hawkes believes he was chosen by God to create the unusual matchstick objects that are part of the American Visionary Art Museum's opening exhibit.

November 26, 1995|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN STAFF

When Gerald Hawkes looks at kitchen matches, he sees beyond their pine-splinter bodies, their easily snuffed-out flames. For reasons he doesn't understand, he has discovered in them what he struggles to find in life -- strength, solidarity, wholeness.

Almost everyone else lights matches, then throws them away.

For hours on end, Mr. Hawkes works in his one-room Charles Village apartment to reveal to others what he sees. Using only Elmer's glue as a binder and thousands of matches as his medium, he creates tables that are exotic and sturdy, jewelry boxes that are delicate and mysterious, works of art with patterns in relief. Sometimes a whole day, a whole night slides by as he pieces together, match by match, his visions.

Over the years, his work has been shown at galleries from Maryland to Japan. It is sought by collectors nationwide. Now his unusual creations are part of the inaugural exhibit of Baltimore's newly opened American Visionary Art Museum. On display are five busts, the fragile planes of each face evident against the textured wooden skulls. There also is a match-thin fan and a table overlaid with a design of intertwining tree branches.

Mr. Hawkes says he creates these objects because he was chosen. "I deal with forces," he says. "I deal with inner feelings that only comes from God. I wait for him to move me from the inside. I'm on a mission."

But, he adds, "God moves me in ways that are sometimes scary. I wonder, 'Why me?' "

Little about the 52-year-old Baltimorean fits the comfortable labels often used by art lovers when describing creative work. For 41 years, Mr. Hawkes' life followed what most would deem a conventional path. But in August 1984, his car broke down as he drove home from his job as a medical assistant at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center. He got out on North Avenue to telephone for help and was attacked and severely beaten by men with pipes and sticks.

The mugging left him with no sense of taste or smell and with an unreliable short-term memory. Sometimes chronologies escape him. "For Gerald, the most important thing to understand is where his work comes from, and he can tell you that," says his friend Sandy Magsamen. "The other facts? Just fill them in as you need."

But the injuries to Mr. Hawkes' brain that wreaked havoc in his personal and professional life also may have led to a frenzy of creativity. "I lost everything," he says. "But I think God set me aside to send a message. I'm not possessed or anything, but I am just as amazed at this stuff as everyone else."

With startlingly blue-green eyes against brown skin, and a mole in the center of his forehead, Mr. Hawkes' physical beauty seems almost otherworldly. His conversations leap from the commonplace to shimmering gems of truth. "It's like he speaks from an angel. He's been known to say the wisest things that are right on target," says Juliana Trotta-Nilsson, a staff member at the museum. "But he's so in tune with the other side he has trouble negotiating this side."

To Mr. Hawkes, his mole has many special meanings: God

sometimes speaks to him through it. His mother, a homemaker who designed hats, also had one. And, he says, gesturing from eyes to mole, it forms the third point of a triangle on his forehead. Triangles symbolize the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and appear over and over in his work. "It seems like I was born with a match in the center of my head," he says.

From his parents, the late Ernest and Luvenia Hawkes, who were church deacons, he learned about religion. His father, a Sparrows Point crane operator with "common sense and strong guts," taught him to stand up for his rights and to "mean what I say when I speak." His mother taught him to listen to his subconscious. "She had visions," he says. "She would be moved. She would get up and work all night: She would paint the house. She would move all the furniture."

Things that fit

Mr. Hawkes has always liked objects made of many small units. He enjoys things that fit together nicely. Things that require mathematical know-how. Things that come out even. And precision was once his profession. After attending Carver Vocational-Technical High and teaching at Merganthaler Vocational-Technical High, he worked as a printer in Baltimore and New York. In printing, he says, "Everything had to line up."

His imagination was captured by matches sometime during the 1970s, while he was living in New York. Mr. Hawkes can't remember exactly when or why. But as his younger sister recalls it, her brother was inspired while in the hospital. "My grandmother died while he was sick and he couldn't come to the funeral and he felt bad so he began making stuff," says Angela Hawkes Boone, a social worker.

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