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Isaac Hathaway was an educator and artist most known for creating more than 100 busts and masks of prominent African Americans. Hathaway taught at what is now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (UAPB) for more than twenty years as the first chair of the department of ceramics in the college’s art department.
Isaac Scott Hathaway was born in Lexington, Kentucky, on April 4, 1872, to Elijah and Rachel Hathaway. He and his two sisters were raised by their father and grandparents, as their mother died in 1874. Hathaway attended Chandler Junior College and the New England Conservatory of Music’s art department, pursuing his childhood dream of sculpting busts of “famous Negroes.” Hathaway spent two years at the Conservatory of Music before returning to Lexington to teach English at Keene High School, beginning in 1891.
Hathaway developed his sculpting, and patrons—both white and black—demanded his skills. In 1904, Hathaway was commissioned to cast a death mask of a former ambassador to Russia, Cassius Marcellus Clay. By 1907, Hathaway was living in Washington DC and sculpting busts and life masks of significant figures. The masks he completed during this period included likenesses of author and sociologist Monroe N. Work and historian Carter G. Woodson.
Hathaway married Etta Pamplin of Maryland in 1912. She died during childbirth during the first year of their marriage; their son, Elsmer, died in 1941. Hathaway’s second marriage ended in divorce.
In 1915, he moved from Washington DC to Arkansas to teach ceramics at the Branch Normal College in Pine Bluff (Jefferson County), now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. Here, Hathaway created busts of orator Frederick Douglass. Hathaway began sketching Douglass’s likeness while living in Washington DC and reportedly modeled Douglass’s famous hair after the mane of a lion at the Washington Zoo (now the National Zoo). Hathaway opened and chaired the department of ceramics at the college and strengthened its arts program for black students. He met and married his third wife, Umer Porter, in Pine Bluff in 1926. She was also an artist, and she created a bust of her husband that is displayed in the Hathaway/Howard Fine Arts Center at UAPB.
In 1937, Hathaway left Pine Bluff to establish the Ceramics Department at the Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama. In 1938, Father Bruno Drescher of Chicago, Illinois, commissioned Hathaway to model a sculpture of the Catholic saint Martin de Pores. In addition to the commission, Drescher requested 100 statuettes. After receiving the statuettes, Drescher praised Hathaway’s talent, saying, “I do not believe there is a sculptor in the United States who can excel you in producing a likeness.”
In a Federal Writers’ Project interview conducted in 1939, Hathaway compared the molding and shaping of clay to the molding and shaping of children. He said: “This reminds me of our duty to our children. They should be shaped into usefulness as they grow.”
While at Tuskegee, Hathaway continued to sculpt busts and life masks and, in 1943, sculpted his first bust of George Washington Carver. The original bust stood twelve inches tall. Hathaway and George Washington Carver taught at Tuskegee at the same time, and their friendship developed over Hathaway’s experiments with Alabama clay as a sculpting medium.
In 1945, he was selected to design two commemorative coins honoring African Americans, becoming the first African American to design a coin for the U.S. Mint. The first coin commemorated Booker T. Washington and was minted from 1946 to 1951. The second coin commemorated George Washington Carver and was minted from 1951 to 1954.
As he moved from Lexington to Pine Bluff to Tuskegee, Hathaway relocated his art studio and the Isaac Scott Hathaway Art Company. His twelve-inch busts of notable figures such as Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and George Washington Carver proved to be popular in African-American homes throughout the South.
In 1948, Hathaway became director of ceramics at Alabama State College in Montgomery. He retired from teaching in 1963 and returned to Tuskegee. He died on March 12, 1967, in Montgomery, Alabama.
The Isaac Scott Hathaway Collection at the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center in Little Rock (Pulaski County) is the largest known collection of Hathaway art in the world. The Mosaic Templars Cultural Center also holds Hathaway’s papers, including correspondence, sketches, and other textual documents.
For additional information:“Hathaway Museum: Isaac Scott Hathaway.” Online at http://www.hathawaymuseum.org/biographies.html (accessed May 25, 2011).
Isaac Scott Hathaway Papers. Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, Little Rock, Arkansas.
Walker, Odelia. “Isaac Scott Hathaway, Sculptor, 1874–1967.” Exhibit Catalog, Leedell Moorehead-Graham Gallery at Isaac S. Hathaway–John M. Howard Fine Arts Center, University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, Pine Bluff, Arkansas, February 15–March 16, 1996.
Heather RegisterLittle Rock, Arkansas
Staff of the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture
Last Updated 7/29/2011
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