Carving a Name
Nashville sculptor William Edmondson's work finally gets the attention it deserves
By Angela Wibking
JANUARY 31, 2000: He was barely 5 feet tall and nearly 60 years old, but he swung cold metal into solid rock with a zeal that would have left many a younger, stronger man exhausted. He was born on the outskirts of Nashville in 1874 and traveled only as far as Memphis in his lifetime, but the works of his hands saw the lights of New York City and crossed the ocean to Paris, France. He had at best a first-grade education, but the literary elite of his day sat at his feet while he labored. He was the son of slaves, but the cream of Belle Meade society visited his home every week.
He was artist William Edmondson, and he has already been proclaimed the greatest folk-art carver of his time. When the dust of the 20th century settles, he may even be counted among the greatest American sculptors, trained or untrained, of the last hundred years.
Though his creative period lasted only from about 1934 to 1948, Edmondson produced hundreds of works during that time--and sold most of them for a few dollars. Today Edmondson sculptures can command six figures and can be found in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the National Museum of American Art at the Smithsonian, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center. Acclaimed contemporary artist Red Grooms, also a Nashville native, paid homage to Edmondson by including a figure of the artist among the parade of historic Tennesseans revolving on his Tennessee Fox Trot Carousel in Riverfront Park. Yet if one were to ask most Nashvillians, let alone most Americans, who William Edmondson was, it would be surprising if they've even heard of him.
That may be about to change. "The Art of William Edmondson" is the first major retrospective of the artist's short but prolific career in nearly 20 years. The exhibition opens Jan. 28 at the Cheekwood Museum of Art and continues through Apr. 23. Then the show hits the road through August 2001, with stops scheduled at the Museum of American Folk Art in New York City, the Memorial Art Gallery at the University of Rochester in Rochester, N.Y., the High Museum of Art's Folk Art and Photography Galleries in Atlanta, and the Mennello Museum of American Folk Art in Orlando, Fla.
In a single year's time, more people will view Edmondson's art than in all the decades since his work was first displayed in a one-man show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 1937. It will be the first time Edmondson's works have toured nationally, and it will be the first time viewers will be asked to consider his work outside the folk-art box that has defined its interpretation for more than six decades.
With 57 sculptures and new scholarship that seeks to reconcile the seeming contradictions of the artist's humble lifestyle and his sophisticated creativity, the Cheekwood show is both a respectful tribute to Edmondson's art and a challenging reassessment of the artist's creative process. That reassessment places Edmondson's image as a simple folk artist guided by divine visions into perspective by proposing other factors that may have influenced the artist's creativity.
The image of Edmondson as a religiously inspired folk artist has endured in print and local lore ever since he gained national attention as the first African American artist to receive a one-man show at the Museum of Modern Art. In every printed interview at the time of that show and thereafter--from The Tennessean to Time magazine to The New York Times--the artist's comments about the heavenly visions and voices that directed him to carve his creations are taken at face value. And while there is no reason to doubt that Edmondson was devoutly religious and fervently believed that God directed his life and art, there are compelling reasons to look beyond that, according to Cheekwood's associate curator Rusty Freeman.
"We realized it was time to reinvestigate Edmondson's work in its original context, to view it in light of everything that was going on in Edmondson's life and community at the time," Freeman says. "In the past, there has been only the narrow interpretation of him as a na•ve artist whose works were solely personal expressions of faith. Looking at the breadth of his work, however, one sees that he was a keen observer of nature and he was paying attention to his surroundings."
Evelyn Edmondson Hill, a registered nurse in Nashville, is Edmondson's great-niece--her grandfather Richard was one of Edmondson's brothers--and she fondly recalls the 1940s, when the street was a thriving black residential community where several members of Edmondson's family lived. Hill remembers visiting and playing in her great-uncle's yard when she was about 8 years old.
"I lived right across the street, and his brother Orange lived next door to him," she says. "I remember lounging on the lions in his yard with my cousins. When I saw those same lions in the big show downtown [at the Tennessee State Museum in 1981], it was really amazing. Of course, when I was a little girl playing on them I didn't appreciate their value or the work that went into them."
Edmondson carved more than just lions, though. His entire yard was filled with animals and human figures carved directly out of limestone blocks. His style was and is distinctive. In his own words, he carved "stingily," barely liberating the living creatures he saw in the stone from their confines. His human figures are voluptuously rounded, his animals sturdy. Whether human or animal, each is endowed with expressive facial features and other intricate detailing. At once primitive and sophisticated, his work straddles the folk-art and modern-art worlds.
Hill remembers her great-uncle as a "quiet-mannered" man who "didn't mind us kids watching him work," but who "would get after us for climbing his peach trees, probably because he thought we might fall and hurt ourselves." She also remembers being fascinated as a child by her great-uncle's house, which she says was filled with "all sorts of colorful little things," and by the artist's regular rituals, like washing his hands in a pan of water on the back porch before coming into the house. "I really remember him as a man first," Hill says. "He had a jovial laugh and said funny things. He was my Uncle Will."
Hill's Uncle Will began life as one of five children born to Orange and Jane Edmondson, former slaves belonging to the Edmondson and Compton families, who owned large plantations in what is now the Green Hills area of Nashville. He seems to have been born in 1874, though there is no written record. There is also no record that Edmondson had any formal education, but we do know that he went to work as a young boy in the cornfields of the former Compton plantation where his parents had once lived as slaves.
There is no way to gauge the impact Edmondson's early years had on the art he produced late in life, but essayists in the Cheekwood catalog argue convincingly that Edmondson may have drawn heavily from his African heritage, from African American folklore, and from current events of his time for both imagery and style. In his essay "Community Heroes in the Sculpture of William Edmondson," Cheekwood's Freeman cites the artist's fascination with carving rabbits and links this to the Uncle Remus/Br'er Rabbit tales popular in the late 1800s. He also points to Edmondson's commemoration of anonymous preachers, teachers, and nurses in his sculptures, as well as such famous figures as Eleanor Roosevelt and boxer Jack Johnson, both revered in the black community of Edmondson's day. Even Edmondson's otherworldly figures--his angels, his arks, and his Christ figures--can be linked, according to Freeman, at least as much to Edmondson's earthly church community as to his divine visions.
By 1913 Edmondson had purchased the house on 14th Avenue South, and he worked as a temporary janitor at nearby George Peabody College for Teachers from 1914-16. It wasn't until 1931, during a period of unemployment, that Edmondson began working with chunks of stone discarded by city street crews who were replacing limestone curbing with concrete. First he carved simple tombstones, using chisels he made from old railroad spikes, and sold them for a few dollars to members of the black community. It is likely he had seen examples of tombstones in the black cemeteries of his day and that he emulated their designs.
But unlike the tombstone shops where inscriptions were sandblasted into the stone, Edmondson hand-carved the words on his monuments, sometimes miscalculating the space and breaking up the inscription in unlikely places. One such tombstone stands in a traditionally black cemetery in Franklin. It is a simple, slender rectangle dating from 1935 on which the last name of the deceased, carved in Edmondson's unmistakable stencil-like style, is split in half, with three letters appearing on one line and the remaining three on the next.
Two examples of the artist's tombstones are also included in the Cheekwood show, one with a lamb carved in bas-relief on the top and one carved in a distinctive shield-like shape. Other Edmondson tombstones mark graves in various area churchyards and in Nashville's Greenwood Cemetery. None of these markers has any of the sculptural adornments, such as doves, that Edmondson often added, these having been rescued by family members or removed illegally over the years. Ironically, Edmondson's own gravesite is an unmarked one somewhere within the former Mt. Ararat Cemetery, the African American graveyard off Elm Hill Pike that is now part of the vast Greenwood complex.
In 1934, Edmondson first received his divine inspiration. That's when, according to an interview that appeared in The Tennessean seven years later, the artist says he was instructed by God 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." Gradually, Edmondson progressed from tombstones to sculptures of animals and humans--always, he maintained, under the direction of God. Soon his yard was taken over with a multitude of finished, unfinished, and yet-to-be-begun works.
It was into this yard that teacher and poet Sidney Hirsch happened in 1935. Hirsch was the inspiration for Edmondson's only complete nude, called "Reclining Man," and some believe Hirsch may even have posed for it. The sculpture is displayed in the Cheekwood show so that viewers can see the unusual symbols, framed inside an arrow, that run down the figure's back. Hirsch was interested in Far Eastern religions and etymologies and created his own symbolic language, which the marks on the sculpture may depict.
A member of The Fugitives, the Vanderbilt University literary movement that included Robert Penn Warren, Hirsch helped spread the word of Edmondson's work to other artistic and literary types. One of these was Louise Dahl-Wolfe, a well-connected New York photographer best known for her fashion photos in Harper's Bazaar magazine.
Dahl-Wolfe visited Nashville on several occasions and photographed Edmondson and his sculptures in great detail. Back in New York, she took the photos to Tom Mabry, a former Nashvillian who knew Edmondson and who was assistant to Alfred Barr, director of the Museum of Modern Art. Barr agreed to present Edmondson's works in a one-man show, the first ever accorded an African American by the then-new museum (temporarily housed at the time in Rockefeller Center). The show featured 12 Edmondson sculptures, including his depictions of Noah's Ark and the biblical figures Martha and Mary, as well as figures of preachers, lawyers, doves, angels, and rams.
The MOMA show was a critical and popular success, garnering Edmondson national press coverage and probably influencing his addition to the WPA (Works Projects Administration) federal arts project payroll in Nashville for short periods of time between November 1939 and June 1941. "The WPA essentially gave him a check so he could work. They didn't take any art or commission any works in return," Freeman says.
Improbably, one of Edmondson's WPA supervisors was Jack Kershaw, creator of the controversial figure of Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest that looms over I-65 South near Brentwood. "Kershaw remembers talking with Edmondson, and he confirmed to us that Edmondson did name the sculptures 'Eleanor Roosevelt' and 'Jack Johnson' himself," Freeman says. Since Edmondson did not sign, date, or usually title his works, it had been thought at one time that these human figures might have been given their specific identities by someone other than the artist, or perhaps attached by the artist at another's urging.
Kershaw also introduced Edmondson to one of the artist's earliest and most enthusiastic supporters, Myron King, whose Lyzon Art Gallery on Thompson Lane is Nashville's oldest commercial gallery. Today, in his late 70s, King remains one of Edmondson's biggest champions. "He wasn't a craftsman or a technician," King says. "He just got the spirit of the thing [he carved]. I just watched a special on Eleanor Roosevelt on PBS, and it is amazing how Edmondson captured the essence of everything she was about."
The sculpture, which is owned by the King family, is included in the Cheekwood show. While it is by no means a literal depiction of the famous first lady, who visited Nashville during Edmondson's lifetime--and who championed civil rights long before it was politically correct--the sculpture contains certain details that suggest the artist was paying attention to physical as well as spiritual influences. Edmondson's "Eleanor Roosevelt" is a powerful figure encased in a full-length coat that appears to have a high fur collar. It is the same kind of coat the first lady wore during her 1934 visit to Nashville.
It will never be known whether the artist glimpsed Roosevelt as she toured Belmont University a block from his home or whether he saw her photograph in the newspaper, but the coat connection seems too close to put down to coincidence. The dramatic, floor-length braid of hair that spills down her back, though, comes from somewhere beyond Roosevelt's physical reality and may be linked, according to the catalog, with both biblical and African traditions of hair as a power symbol.
Edmondson prized the Roosevelt sculpture so highly that he kept it on a shelf along with one of his Christ figures and only sold it to art dealer King on the condition that he could come and visit it. "He told me, 'If you'll keep Miss Eleanor so I can come and see her sometime, I'll sell her to you,' " King recalls. True to his word, King kept the sculpture at his gallery, and Edmondson came there twice during the last years of his life. "We didn't have a thing at the gallery then except 23 of his sculptures and a few paintings, but he took a look around and said, 'Oh, Mr. King, you're a millionaire.' "
But the gallery owner also recalls a man interested in expanding his artistic horizons. "I took [Nashville sculptor and Vanderbilt art professor] Puryear Mims to see Edmondson one day, and Edmondson asked him for art lessons. Mims told him he wouldn't dream of doing that because it might ruin everything Edmondson was already doing."
As for Edmondson's essence as a human being, King says it can best be found in his work. "When people ask me about his personality, I just tell them to look at one of his lions. When I see the expression on that old lion's face, I almost expect him to say, 'Hello, Mr. King.' " Edmondson's lions are included in the Cheekwood show, along with a vast menagerie of other animals that includes rabbits, opossums, squirrels, turtles, rams, three bear cubs on a log, owls, eagles, cranes, and doves.
Other friends of Edmondson recall the man in an eight-minute biographical film that runs continuously at the Cheekwood exhibition. Produced by Envision, the Nashville production company that created the award-winning documentary Faces in the Forest, the film features vintage photos of the Nashville and New York of Edmondson's time, as well as photos of the artist and his sculptures. The photos are dramatically interspersed with interviews with Charles Anthony, who as a young boy lived near the artist's home and frequently raided his fruit trees; Sadie Whitlow Overton, a distant cousin of Edmondson; Myron King; the late Grace Zibart; and Judge John Nixon. Nashville actor Barry Scott provides the voice of Edmondson in the film, and television news anchor Demetria Kalodimos narrates.
The fleeting recognition likewise didn't affect Edmondson's own assessment of his art. "I was just doing the Lord's work," he said in one interview. "I didn't know I was no artist until them folks come and told me I was." Indeed, in every existing interview with Edmondson, he consistently credited God for his creative inspiration, and he never referred to himself as an artist.
Modern-day viewers and critics have lately raised the question whether Edmondson's modesty was calculated for a white reporter's benefit. Or is it possible that his declarations of divine inspiration were overstated by the white press--who printed his words in a supposed approximation of an uneducated black dialect? Was his artistic vision one entirely unfettered by earthly influences, or did the artist eagerly absorb and interpret ideas and images introduced to him by Vanderbilt and New York intelligentsia? We will likely never know. But by looking at the life Edmondson led as a black man in Nashville at the turn of one century and through the first 50 years of the next, the Cheekwood show allows us at least to consider that the artist was actively engaged in the world around him as well as the one he says God revealed to him.
The essays in the exhibition catalog by Freeman and others reinforce the intriguing connections between Edmondson's art and Nashville's rich black history, African culture, and African American religious and folklore traditions, but they only hint at the essence of Edmondson's genius. In the end, the only way to understand the depth of Edmondson's talent and his artistic vision may be to let his works speak for themselves.
"The works alone show he was passionately interested in the world around him," Freeman says. "He was interested in such a wide variety of subject matter--his appetite as an artist was amazing. And he wasn't intimidated by society even though his context for working was radically different from ours. He lived in a very tough environment, but his passion transcended that and gave him a way to speak through the stones."
That Edmondson's stones continue to speak to new generations is something the artist himself may have foreseen. "The Lord has given me wisdom and this wonderful thing of cutting stone," he once said. "That's all I know now, but he tells me he is going to give me more." That "more" may be the national recognition the Cheekwood show will finally grant Edmondson 50 years after his death--the recognition that this son of former slaves was not only divinely inspired, but divinely gifted as well.
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