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William Edmondson at work
William Edmondson (c.1874–1951) was an African-American folk art sculptor. In 1937, Edmondson was the first African-American artist to be given a one-person show exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
William Edmondson was born in Davidson County, Tennessee, the son of two former slaves, somewhere between 1870 and 1886. He did not know the exact year of his birth because of a fire that destroyed the family Bible.
One of six children, Edmondson grew up in what was then a rural part Davidson County on the Compton plantation where his mother and father had been enslaved and now worked as sharecroppers. He had little or no formal education, and it was reported that he was unable to read or write. His father died sometime around 1889, and he and his siblings and mother moved into Nashville. William got a good job working at the expansive new Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railroad shops. After an injury sustained at the Railway shops in 1907, Edmondson took a job as a custodian at the Nashville Women's Hospital, where he worked until the hospital closed in 1931.
Edmondson never married. His wages at Women's Hospital allowed him to buy a modest home in the segregated Edgehill neighborhood in Nashville. He shared the home with his mother and sister until their deaths, as well as, occasionally, other siblings, nieces, and nephews. After the closing of the hospital in 1931, he worked a number of part-time jobs and sold vegetables grown in his backyard.
Edmondson entered the world of sculpture at the advanced age of about 60 years old in 1934. He reported that he received a vision from God, who told him to start sculpting: "I was out in the driveway with some old pieces of stone when I heard a voice telling me to pick up my tools and start to work on a tombstone. 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." He began his career by working on these tombstones, which he sold or gave to friends and family in the community. Soon he began carving lawn ornaments, birdbaths, and decorative sculptures. He worked primarily with chunks of discarded limestone from demolished buildings, which were delivered to him by wrecking companies' trucks.
Edmondson's work was influenced by his Christian faith and his membership in a nearby Primitive Baptist congregation. His sculptures are straightforward and emphatic forms ranging from one to three feet in height, many sharing his unique religious symbolism. He carved figures of biblical characters, angels, doves, turtles, eagles, rabbits, horses and other real and fanciful creatures, local community icons such as preachers, lawyers and school teachers, celebrities of the day who were important to the African American community, and a small number of nude figures. He also sculpted a number of popular figures such as First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and prizefighter Jack Johnson. He sold his sculptures along with selling vegetables.
About five years later, his art was "discovered" by a white Caucasian neighbor, Sidney Hirsch and his friends, Alfred and Elizabeth Starr. Alfred Starr, managing partner of a chain of movie theaters catering to the black community and his wife Elizabeth, a painter, became enthusiastic patrons and supporters of Edmondson's work. They introduced Edmondson to several artist friends, including Starr's boyhood friend Meyer (Mike) Wolfe and his wife Louise Dahl-Wolfe. Dahl-Wolfe was a photographer who had recently begun work for Harper's Bazaar fashion magazine in New York. She made dozens of photographs of Edmondson at work in his backyard shop, which she took to New York. She brought Edmondson's work to the attention of fellow Tennessean Thomas Mabry and his boss Alfred Barr, the director of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Edmondson was given a one-man show, the first by an African American artist, at that Museum in 1937.
His exhibit was shown from October to December 1937. The editor of Harper's Bazaar attempted to write an article on him, but its publisher, newspaper chain mogul William Randolph Hearst, had a prejudice against showing black people as anything other than servants.
In 1938, through MoMA's influence, William Edmondson's sculpture was included in the "Three Centuries of Art in the United States" in Paris. Interest in his work on the national and international stage was short-lived, and he was viewed primarily as a novelty, or exemplar of the "primitive" race-memory of an untutored, naive old Negro stone carver. Locally, Alfred Starr continued to promote Edmondson's work to his artistic friends and acquaintances, who bought work directly from Edmondson's "sculpture yard" or through the local Lyzon Gallery. Starr introduced the famed modernist photographer Edward Weston to Edmondson in 1941, and Weston made several striking photographs of Edmondson at work in his shop and yard. Also in 1941, he received the only other solo show accorded during his lifetime, at the Nashville Art Gallery.
Edmondson's career lasted for about fifteen years. His work never commanded large sums during his lifetime. In 1939 and again in 1941, he worked under the Works Progress Administration, a government sponsored relief program that included artists. In the late 1940s, his health began to fail and his artistic production slowed. Edmondson professed to be uninterested in fame, and he appears to have struggled financially for the final years of his life. He is believed to have created about 300 works during his working lifetime.
Edmondson died on February 7, 1951 at his home in Nashville, Tennessee, where illness had confined him to bed for several months. He was buried in Mt. Ararat Cemetery, Nashville's oldest black cemetery. It is unknown whether his grave was marked with a tombstone. If so, it has been lost. Mt. Ararat burial records of the period were lost in a fire, so his exact grave site is unknown.
Since his death, Edmondson's work has gradually come to be highly appreciated by critics and collectors, and his sculptures garner up to $70,000-$300,000 at auction. After very sporadic exhibition through the 1950s and 1960s (mostly as part of "folk art" exhibits), collector Edmund Fuller wrote a biography of Edmondson which was published in 1973. His sculpture was included in the influential "Two Centuries of Black American Art" exhibition curated by Fisk University Art Department chairman David C. Driskell in 1976. In 1981 the new Tennessee State Museum opened with a major solo exhibition of Edmondson's work, and the essays in the accompanying catalog sought to elevate appreciation of Edmondson's work as fine art. Through the 1980s and 1990s Edmondson's sculptures were exhibited extensively, though often in the limiting context of the labels "outsider", "folk art", "self-taught", and "naive". In 1999, Nashville's Cheekwood Museum of Art mounted a major traveling retrospective exhibition and catalog that included in-depth biographical and critical essays on his life and work. A 2006 exhibition, "William Edmondson, Bill Traylor, and the Modernist Impulse," paired Edmondson with another well-known self-taught artist and argued for Edmondson's acceptance as an artist without limiting labels.
On August 20, 2014, Mayor Karl Dean opened Nashville's first arts park, named in Edmondson's honor. The park, managed by the Nashville Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency, includes sculptures by Thornton Dial and Lonnie Holley inspired by the work of William Edmondson. The park is located in a traditionally African-American neighborhood.
Selected Recent Exhibitions
- Cheekwood Museum of Art, Nashville, TN
- The Art of William Edmondson 1999 organized with the American Folk Art Museum, New York, NY
- William Edmondson and Friends: Breaking the Mold, 2014
- Visions from Above: The Life and Work of William Edmondson, 2017
- Farris., Thompson, Robert (January 1, 1999). The art of William Edmondson. Cheekwood Museum of Art. ISBN 1578061814. OCLC 41932532.
- Jack,, Lindsey,; Pa.),, Janet Fleisher Gallery (Philadelphia,. Miracles : the sculptures of William Edmondson. ISBN 0962150630. OCLC 32664611.
- Edmondson, William; Thompson, Robert Farris; Freeman, Rusty (1999). The Art of William Edmondson. Univ. Press of Mississippi. p. 17. ISBN 9781578061815. Retrieved June 13, 2018.
- "10 things to know about William Edmondson". Christie's. Retrieved June 13, 2018.
- Outsider Art Sourcebook, ed. John Maizels, Raw Vision, Watford, 2009, p.70
- "WILLIAM EDMONDSON". Ricco Maresca Gallery. Retrieved May 23, 2015.
- "William Edmondson, a down home artist forging beauty from stone". aaregistry.org. Retrieved May 23, 2015.
- "Edmondson Park dedication officially opens city's first arts park". Nashville.gov. Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County. August 20, 2014. Retrieved June 12, 2018.
Collections with Edmondson Works
- American Folk Art Museum, New York, NY
- Minneapolis Institute of Art, Minneapolis, MN
- The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
- Ricco Maresca Gallery, New York, NY
- Smithsonian Museum of American Art, Washington, DC
- Tennessee State LIbrary, Nashville, TN
- The Tennessee State Museum, Nashville, TN
- Thompson, Lovett, Freeman, McWillie, Gundaker and Sims, The Art of William Edmondson, Cheekwood Museum of Art, Nashville, Tennessee and University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, 1999
- The WPA Guide to Tennessee, Compiled and Written by the Federal Writers' Project of the Works Projects Administration for the State of Tennessee, The University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, 1986
- Outsider Art Sourcebook, ed. John Maizels, Raw Vision, Watford, 2009