The premise that black artists should represent black life was fairly prevalent in the United States before the middle of the twentieth century. This was the path that Phillip Jewel Hampton pursued in his early paintings of ramshackle cityscapes, leading to his association with social realist trends of the 1930s. But after two decades he was a full-fledged abstractionist—a stylistic move made by many artists during the 1940s and 1950s–who experimented with synthetic media. 

A native of Kansas City, Missouri, Hampton displayed an early interest in art and, to the dismay of family members, used window blinds for his formative art making. His childhood was disrupted by yearly moves between 1929 and 1941. He entered Citrus Junior College in Glendora, California, and majored in art, until he was inducted into the United States Army in 1943. Serving for two years, he was present on the twelfth day of the D-Day campaign at Omaha Beach in Normandy, France, and was also at the Battle of the Bulge. At discharge he was a decorated staff sergeant.

Using the GI Bill, he enrolled at Kansas State College in Manhattan, Kansas (now Kansas State University), and took scientific, engineering, and other technical drawing courses. Not happy with this emphasis, he transferred to Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, believing that the Kansas City Art Institute in Missouri would not accept him because of his race. In 1948 he returned to his birthplace, worked at the Thompson Hayward Chemical Company, and enrolled at the Art Institute, as the race policy had changed to accept all who qualified. Hampton did further studies at the University of Kansas City (now University of Missouri-Kansas City) and in 1952 became the first black student to receive a master’s degree in fine arts from the Kansas City (MO) Art Institute. 

In 1952 Hampton took a teaching position at Savannah State College (now Savannah State University) and remained there for seventeen years. During his tenure he significantly strengthened the art department, eventually becoming its director. He collaborated with Syracuse University and consulted with other universities to create and structure a major program in art education in Savannah. In 1954, he attended the National Conference of Art Teachers in Negro Colleges, which became known as The National Conference of Arts (NCA) in 1959 under the leadership of artist Margaret Burroughs. That year he organized the first exhibition of African American artists at the Telfair Academy. He offered summer workshops in art appreciation with a theoretical bent, choosing such titles as “Art Will Prepare the Path” and “Intellectual and Emotional Growth through Creative Experiences.” Hampton was a founding member of the National Conference of Artists (NCA), an organization that continues to operate. He served on the board of the Savannah Art Association from 1969–1971 and was recognized in 1966 with an award for service in art to the community.

Hampton’s own paintings at first were of a social realist nature, and during the civil rights movement he produced a few works dealing with discrimination, having suffered firsthand upon his arrival in Savannah. He authored two books: An Approach to Art for Preadults (1963) and Modern Art—the Celebration of Man’s Freedom (1966). By the late 1960s he had shifted to abstract work which liberated him from the strictures of representational art, while also concealing his ethnicity. This further allowed him to document and celebrate “the African American experience both intellectually and emotionally through abstract, visual means.” At times he added strings that made grids across the surface of the paintings which enhanced the often cubist nature of his work. 

During his sabbatical in 1971 he conducted research on synthetic materials which included Plexiglas, vinyl acetate, styrene, and Styrofoam. He approached the makers of Rhoplex which sent him two hundred gallons of its acrylic emulsion paint. Designed for adhesion to such surfaces as concrete and garage doors, it has a high gloss surface. Hampton used the paint for the remainder of his career. For instance, in 1980 he created a mixed media work based on drawing, collage, decal, printed Plexiglas in four panels that swiveled and folded; in addition, it could be tucked in a box when not on display. By using new materials in new ways, Hampton’s ambition was to be in step with the times, as he explained: “Artists are facing today the task of discarding principles that are no longer relative to current creative demands. This condition may exist among artists for the simple reason that society also had to react to newer media and ideas. It follows, therefore, that a society being increasingly oriented to newness will expect art forms that are commensurate with their era.”

After many successful years in Savannah, in 1969 Hampton became associate professor of painting and design at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville, Illinois.  During 1970 and 1971 Hampton was the coordinator of the Ethnic and Special Studies workshop. Remaining there until his retirement in 1992, he overlapped with noted architect Buckminster Fuller. In the 1980s Hampton continued to experiment and developed a series of landscapes on shaped canvases. “I always wanted to find something uniquely my own. … The search is more important to me than the conclusion.” In October 2022, Feels Like Freedom—a clear reference to Hampton’s penchant for experimentation and use of abstraction—opened as a retrospective exhibition at the Jepson Center at the Telfair Museums.