I was out in the driveway with some old pieces of stone when I heard a voice telling me to pick up my tools … I looked up in the sky, and right there in the noon daylight, he hung a tombstone out for me to make. I knowed it was God telling me what to do.
William Edmondson believed that he was called to carve - and carve he did, until his death in 1951.
Edmondson was born in segregated Nashville, Tennessee, USA, in 1874, towards the end of what is known as the “Reconstruction Era” (1866-1877) following the American Civil War. The son of freed slaves, Edmondson had no formal education in the arts and worked odd jobs as a railroad worker, hospital janitor, and laborer. This work afforded him dexterity with tools (such as railroad spikes and hammers) that he would use as a sculptor.
According to Edmondson, “Jesus planted the seed of carving” within him in his late fifties. Edmondson obeyed the call and began making “mirkels” with readily available limestone, a material of abundance (and considerable porosity) in Tennessee.
Edmondson’s early productions were gravestones and garden ornaments. Fortunately for Edmondson, his community was eager for such designs; or, maybe because of their desire, they became his focus. Edmondson sold what he could - particularly, gravestones to grieving African American families - at affordable prices and otherwise bartered with neighbors and other customers.
Edmondson’s repertoire evolved to include indoor sculptures with religious undertones, including pieces reflecting the story of Noah’s Ark and the Crucifixion, and depictions of fellow congregants in worship. Simultaneously, Edmondson’s work grew in familiarity with wealthier American art patrons, coinciding with something of a revival of “direct carving” as an art form.
In 1937, at the age of 67, Edmondson became the first Black artist to have a solo exhibition in New York’s Museum of Modern Art (or, MOMA). The day’s art Illuminati described his MOMA collection as “primitive.” Despite their critique, many decades later in 2019, Edmondson’s “Miss Lucy” sold at auction for $324,000. (It remains unclear to me who benefits from the proceeds of Edmondson’s present-day sales. If the reader happens to have any information, please contact me. I’m quite curious if this is yet another case of misappropriation!)
In 2023, Edmondson was memorialized in song by Philadelphia-based Ruth Naomi Floyd. A diva in the literal and most gracious sense of the word, Floyd and her band wrote and performed original songs and select hymnals inspired by William Edmondson: A Monumental Vision, on display at the Barnes Foundation at the time for their performance.
I was first exposed to Edmondson at Floyd’s concert, attended on a beautiful, breezy Friday night in Philadelphia’s Art Museum district. I admit that I knew nothing of this consequential man’s story until that very evening. Without my well-timed attendance, he may have remained to be one of America’s “hidden figures,” like many who do not make it onto the pages of my nation’s too-thin, watered-down textbooks.
Since that beautiful, breezy night and by virtue of researching for this article, I’ve come to believe that the critics who referred to Edmondson’s work as “primitive” buried the lede. The work itself may or may not be impressive (and really, the value of any art is determined by the patron.) Rather, appreciating Edmondson’s ability to thrive within context is more remarkable than any of his techniques.
Edmondson managed to find success as both an artist and an entrepreneur during a lingering economic depression, into and after a Second World War, while segregationist policies encircled him, and as old age advanced upon him.
Even with such resistant winds blowing in his direction, Edmondson fulfilled his assigned heavenly call. That is more than many - including those of youth and formal skill - can say of their lifetime.
Broad Street Review.
National Gallery of Art.