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Former janitor’s art collection sweeps kids off their feet

Tatyana Bellamy-Walker | 8/22/2013, 9:39 a.m. | Updated on 8/22/2013, 9:39 a.m.
Edmund J Hicks

At a glance, the home of humanitarian artist Edmund J. Hinkson appears to be like any other on Long Island: white pickett fence, green grass and a concrete path that leads to the front step.

However, the basement of the former school custodian is a museum in the making, containing more than 300 African artifacts. Hinkson has used his unique taste in art to paint a picture in the minds of students from Northeast Elementary School in Amityville, N.Y.

For more than 20 years, Hinkson has educated pre-kindergarten to kindergarten students during Black History Month. With the help of school staff members, Hinkson brings his African artifacts to the classroom and showcases a large exhibit in the school’s gymnasium.

Students get a hands-on chance to examine African masks, instruments, artwork, pottery, woven cloths and photography. Hinkson enjoys sharing his personal treasures from Africa and is delighted to speak with the children about the history of African culture and the diligence that went into making each work of art.

“I enjoy talking to the kids and showing them their capabilities,” said Hinkson. Hinkson’s appreciation for art stems from his childhood. Although Hinkson grew up living with eight brothers and sisters in the small town of Massepequa, N.Y., Hinkson’s early inspiration was his late brother, Paul Hinkson.

“If my brother hadn’t left me that big drum, I don’t even know if I’d be doing this,” said Hinkson, referring to an artifact left to him by his brother. “That big drum is what got everything started, got me interested in Black art, and then I expanded to educate the children,” Hinkson said.

During his teen years, however, Hinkson says that his behavior wasn’t so “picture perfect.”

“I was always gone, always causing headaches and problems. I was in the street too much,” Hinkson explained.

As a result, Hinkson’s father placed him in St. Emma Military Academy, an African-American naval school in Powhatan County in Virginia.

“There were 300 ninth-graders, and I knew not one of them. I couldn’t run home or call my friends because all my friends were back in New York, and I was in Virginia,” said Hinkson.

After four years in the academy, Hinkson continued into the United States Army.

“I wasn’t even in the service for a week, and right away I called Dad and said, ‘[The academy is] finally paying off,” said Hinkson.

Hinkson finished his service in 1964 and immediately started looking for work. Luckily, Hinkson’s sister, a teacher in the Amityville school district, was able to get him a job as a school custodian. The position came with its difficulties.

“Teachers would look down on you because you were a custodian,” said Hinkson.

Hinkson persisted in his job and now, at 75 years old, says that he has lived longer than many of his family members and misses his best friend and brother Paul.

“Things were good till he passed. I missed him as being my brother and being there when I needed him, or to pick up the phone. But when he passed, [there were] no more phone calls. It wasn’t easy,” said Hinkson.

Despite his grief, Hinkson looks forward to seeing the kids from the elementary school in February and doing his annual exhibit.

“I’m getting a little older and getting a little tired, but I see those little kids running around, and wow, it just does something for me,” said Hinkson.

Since 1989, Hinkson has shown his exhibit to over 10,000 kids.

“It touches a little bit of everyone,” he said.