A work of art

Published 12:00 am Thursday, October 10, 2002

Earl Hopkins sat in a chair in the lobby of the Old Depot Museum, cradling a wooden sculpture of Jesus Christ in his hands so he could smooth out the features with a bit of sandpaper.

The scuplture features a detailed image of Jesus holding a carpenter’s tool.

Hopkins started doing wood carvings in his childhood. He’ll be displaying some of his work at Saturday’s Riverfront Market Day.

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Even though his skin is the color of ebony, Hopkins is a mixture of all sorts of cultures, with Irish, Cherokee and Jamaican to name a few.

A Selma native, Hopkins speaks of a different era, when the area around Washington Street Grocery used to be called &uot;Colored Town&uot; and he used to pull his little red wagon to get coal for his mother.

When Hopkins was 8 years old, he accompanied his grandfather to a house on Broad Street where his grandfather cut the grass.

While his grandfather worked, Hopkins crawled under the house. With a Boy Scout knife, he whittled his first piece &045;&045; a portrait of Abraham Lincoln.

He took it to the lady of the house, who paid him 50 cents. Then he went back and copied a picture of George Washington off a quarter. For that he received another 50 cents.

Hopkins grew older and eventually graduated high school &045;&045; twice. He first graduated in 1944, then joined the Navy. When he returned from his tour of duty, he encountered an obstacle when he tried to enroll for college.

After Hopkins graduated the second time in 1947, he headed off to Washington, D.C. He eventually came back to open the first colored photography studio in Selma and went on to do many jobs around the city.

In 1991, Hopkins was living in Jamaica when he received word that his sister was terminally ill with cancer. They gave her only six months to live.

She actually lived nearly 12 years. But, at the time, Hopkins did not know this. He came back to Selma to visit her and during this time was asked by the Old Depot museum to repair a wooden statue that was split down the middle. He eventually came back fulltime to help out his sister and has been working with Jean Martin, curator at the Old Depot, ever since.

The majority of Hopkins’ work features elephants &045;&045; a link to African history. In Africa, Hopkins explained, elephants were revered as god-like creatures.

That, he said, is something that most young black people do not know. &uot;In Selma, very few people know their African history,&uot; Hopkins said.

He recently led a group of schoolchildren through the museum. When he pointed out a picture of Benjamin Sterling Turner, owner of the St. James Hotel and Alabama’s first black senator, no one could identify his contributions to the state.

But Hopkins could.

After showing off the pieces he plans to take to Market Day, Hopkins moved around the African American exhibit at the Old Depot, pointing to pictures of different people and explaining their role in Alabama and the nation.

The other common symbol found in Hopkins’ work is elegantly-detailed fish, their mouths gaping open. So why are there so many fish?

Hopkins, a Pisces, gave a rueful smile.