Written by guest blogger, Elisabeth Lewis Corley.
Hamidou Sissoko found his way to Chatham County in search of an affordable house in which to raise a family. The path he has taken throughout his life has been marked by hard work, with a consistent theme of devotion to family, and a gradually increasing importance of art in his many labors. He works with what he finds and turns unexpected connections into art.
His journey to Chatham County began in 1998 in Manantali, Mali, in West Africa, when he met a young American beginning a two-year term in the Peace Corps in Mali. He was a worker on a dam construction project and drove the enormous dump trucks that were moving great quantities of rock. They spoke French and Bambara, one of the Mali national languages. He thought their romance would end with her Peace Corps term and she did go back to the United States at the end of that term. But they wrote to each other. And six months later, she returned, and they married. In 2001, Hamidou Sissoko came to this country speaking no English, with no prospects for employment, knowing no one except his wife.
He now speaks English fluently, and his two children are native English speakers. But when he came all he knew was how to work on engines. He cannot remember a time he did not know how to fix cars. “I’m a person who learns from his hands.” When he came as a car mechanic to work on the dam construction project in Manantali, he started out working on simple machines but soon the people working on the most complex equipment would ask for Hamidou. And his hands kept teaching him what to do.
His wife’s parents were from Greensboro and the young couple ended up in Chapel Hill. When he arrived in Chapel Hill he went with his wife to a car repair shop and his wife explained that he did not speak English but he could fix anything. When the owner of the shop was hesitant, Hamidou asked his wife to suggest that he hire him for one week and at the end of that week, if he didn’t find him useful, he could let him go and owe him nothing. They never let him go.
He worked in Chapel Hill and studied English. In 2005, when the couple decided his English was strong enough and the time was right to begin a family, they started looking for an affordable house. Chapel Hill was too expensive, Carrboro was too expensive. They found their place in Chatham County. “When we bought this house and my daughter was born, I became a stay-at-home dad. And I had my tools.”
He had taught himself to paint and to sketch but he did not want to lose his welding skills. That is when he started making sculptures. And making them, and making them. They were taking over the yard. In 2015 his work appeared for the first time at the yearly Fearrington Folk Art Show. “I didn’t think anyone would buy it but the first year I sold several pieces.” He has returned every year since, most recently with two truck loads, most of which was quickly spoken for.
The materials of his work always include something mechanical, something from the world of engines—a gear, a bit of metal, discarded engine housings, whatever he can find—and the images that emerge come from what he loves in the natural world—hummingbirds, dragon flies. The pieces are meticulously constructed and finished, whimsical, beautiful, and surprising.
FROM THE ARTIST
Full Name: Hamidou Mamadou Sissoko
I live: In the country, outside Pittsboro.
I knew I was an artist when: I don’t know. Maybe even right now, I don’t know. The day I’m going to see myself as an artist is when I create something big. If my brain can allow me to reach that, then I will tell people I am an artist.
My favorite artists are: Every year Riley Foster and I sell together at the Fearrington Folk Art Show. He makes sculpture, too, but we have very different styles. I admire his work.
Childhood memories: Mostly working on cars. The idea was to support our family. I didn’t get a high level education but I know how things work. Even to engineers, I can explain how it works. I open it up and my instinct will tell me how to fix it.
Some jobs I’ve had are: Car mechanic, heavy equipment mechanic, carpenter, appliance repair person. I drove that dump truck on the dam construction site too.
When I’m not making sculpture, you might find me: Doing carpentry or fixing something. My children call me “Fixer.”
The craziest thing I ever did was: Coming to the United States. You don’t speak English. You don’t know the culture. You don’t know anybody. You leave everything you love behind. Except one person.
Next on my bucket list is: I think of my own death every day. That’s part of my daily life as a Muslim. I enjoy the present. What’s past is past. I don’t focus too much on the future. I don’t focus too much on money. I want to do something good for other people. If someone needs me to fix something, or weld something, and I can sense there is a problem with money, I do the work and then say, “Come back when you have money.” Sometimes they do. And if they don’t, still, I did something good. Even in my garden, people say, “You should take that to the farmer’s market and sell it.” I give it to people who will eat it and enjoy it. But if I can give something to the county, a big piece of art, something for people to remember me. Yes. That would be good.
On my bedside table you’ll find: Nothing. I sit here. I drink my coffee. My wife goes to bed early because she gets up very early, before any of us. When it is time for bed, I send the children, and I go. If they don’t go, I call to them. “I want you to go to bed.” And that’s it.
A Chatham County artist I admire is: Steve Cote. He is a sculptor. A blacksmith. He makes big things and has big machines to bend things.
My favorite place to go in Chatham County is: The Habitat for Humanity Home Store. Everybody who works there knows me. I find objects for my work and tools to make it.
For more information contact Hamidou by email: firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Instagram @sissokoartsculpture