Stay-at-home dad and metalsmith Hamidou Sissoko redefines himself through his nature-inspired sculptures
By Lori D. Roberts Wiggins | Photography by John Michael Simpson
A 6-foot-tall steel dinosaur and an oversized metallic daisy greet visitors venturing into Hamidou Sissoko’s yard along Olde Farm Road in Pittsboro. The handmade sculptures are his first works of art in an outdoor garden filled with homegrown vegetables and eye-popping creativity.
Hamidou, who was born in Manantali, Mali, moved to Pittsboro 17 years ago with his wife, Maureen Maurer, a native of Greensboro, North Carolina. Together, they are raising their 16-year-old daughter, Rokia Sissoko, and 13-year-old son, Tumani Sissoko.
Hamidou describes himself as a self-taught artist inspired by “what I love in the natural world – birds, insects, plants – and what I can imagine – dragons, dinosaurs and robots.” His materials include oil drums, broken bikes, gears, engine parts, brake drums, control arms, motor mounts, stabilizer bars and other discarded metal objects he either finds or people save for him.
LOVE WITHOUT BORDERS
In 1998, Maureen began a two-year Peace Corps volunteer assignment in Mali and stayed with a host family whose friends included Hamidou. Their paths crossed during one of his visits to the family’s home.
“He laughed at me about my Bambara,” Maureen says of her proficiency in speaking one of Mali’s national languages. Bambara is spoken more often than French, which is the official language of Mali. Hamidou explains it was nothing personal, just a way many Malians rib one another. The two stayed in touch through letters when Maureen returned to the U.S. in 2000. Six months later, she went back to Mali, and the couple were married in a Muslim ceremony. In 2001, the couple moved to Chapel Hill for Maureen’s master’s degree program in public health, and Pittsboro became home in 2005.
Moving anywhere can be tough, but the transatlantic transition from West Africa to North America was especially difficult because, at first, Hamidou spoke no English, had no employment prospects and knew no one except his wife.
There was one skill he developed in Mali that he could use here – mechanical repairs. Hamidou knew cars, bikes and engines because he grew up helping his dad repair the vehicles he drove as a transporter. Hamidou developed his know-how of fixing simple and complex machinery.
“We didn’t waste any materials in Mali,” Hamidou says. “We found creative ways to fix things. I started to like to fix cars. I’m familiar with all shapes in the car.” Becoming a mechanic here, he learned to weld and became a master of the intricacies of automotive parts, functions, uses and aesthetics.
When the couple welcomed children, Hamidou saw an opportunity. “We could spend a lot of money on day care, or I could spend time with my children and know them,” he says. So, he became a stay-at-home dad, spending a lot of time with his kids outside in the garden observing plants, trees, flowers, insects and animals. It was a visit to the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh, where his son was awed by a dinosaur sculpture, that inspired Hamidou to make his own sculpture.
“I think I can make a dinosaur,” Hamidou whispered to his wife, who chuckled. Using scrap metal in their backyard, he selected an oil drum and chains to create his own version. “It took a long time to make it,” he says, guessing it took at least six weeks to design and cut metal by hand. It was followed by a larger-than-life daisy, a request from his daughter, who wanted a sculpture, too.
BECOMING AN ARTIST
At first, Hamidou didn’t set out to sell his art. He certainly didn’t believe anybody would pay money for it.
“What I see is not good enough to take it to one place and sell it,” he recalls thinking. But Maureen thought differently and convinced him to show at the annual Fearrington Folk Art Show, where art that is raw and rustic is on display.
“I sold everything,” Hamidou says, the sheer joy still audible in his voice. Some pieces were sold before the show started. “I was very shocked,” he says. “… I now know I have work to do. Ninety percent of my customers don’t stop laughing or smiling.”
Friend and fellow artist Ken Vrana has watched Hamidou’s creative evolution over the past decade. “I love it,” Ken says. “It’s exciting to watch. His pieces are very childlike and emotional. I’ve watched his stuff evolve. You can tell he has a vision for the future.”
These days, Hamidou’s work can be found at businesses around town, like the offices of Hobbs Architects, and at shows featuring self-taught artists. His creations also are part of the North Carolina Botanical Garden’s annual exhibit, Sculpture in the Garden. In 2020, “State of Balance” was Hamidou’s first abstract sculpture featured in the show.
“I was interested in the puzzle of combining different metals and exploring balance and symmetry,” he says in his description for the installation. Old oxygen tanks become bells that balance the centerpiece made up of a combination of gears from car transmissions, flat metal pieces cut into shapes and parts from car brakes. For another sculpture, “Dragonfly with Bell,” Hamidou says he used recycled and welded scrap metal. A compressor tank became the bell/flower, a pipe created the stand, and an old motor mount and shovel molded the dragonfly. It sold for $1,200.
Last year’s sculpture exhibit featured Hamidou’s newer “Crane,” the long-legged bird he remembers seeing growing up in Mali. Made of the recycled scrap metal of a bicycle frame, a rake, a car water pump and stabilizer bar, pliers, shovels and other pieces, it sold for $800. In the same year, Hamidou received an honorable mention for “Venus’ Flytrap,” his rendition of a carnivorous plant that grows naturally along the North Carolina coast. To create it, Hamidou used recycled rakes and an old plow for the flowers, car brackets to make the flies, and a car intake manifold for the top portion.
Back in Hamidou’s garden, he grows a variety of plants: sorghum, tomatoes, bell peppers, kale, cucumbers, lettuce, lemon grass, okra and Malian eggplant. His outdoor canvas is filled with butterflies, dragonflies, hummingbirds, crickets, ladybugs and other wildlife that come out to play. “I spend most of my time outside,” he says. “Even if it’s cold, I’m outside.” Nature continues to inspire him to create whimsical pieces – the garden is where Hamidou’s imagination grows.