Artist Profile – Edgar Tolson
Edgar Tolson’s carvings are significant for art historical as well as aesthetic reasons. He was one of the most prominent artists implicated in a period of resurgent artworld interest in American “folk art,” and, with his inclusion in the 1973 Whitney Biennial, he became one of first American self-taught artists (after William Edmondson in 1937) to share curated museum company with “academic” artists. Indeed, his work displays the braided nature of “folk” and “fine” art and confirms the slipperiness of any such labels. (Inasmuch as his family has carried on the tradition of his carving, which was partly inspired by local practices, he can indeed claim a “folk” lineage, if we care to assign it.) Tolson came to art only after a first career in the service of God, one which colored his art. Born in 1904 in Lee City, Kentucky, to a family that traced its ancestry back to early English settlers, Tolson worked as a farmer, carpenter, and chairmaker as a young man. In 1921, he assumed the pastorship of a Baptist church in Holly, Kentucky, but later burned down the building in spiritual frustration and crisis.
Although he had made woodcarvings, mostly canes and small animals, in the Appalachian whittling tradition since he was a young man, Tolson did not begin his more idiosyncratic artistic practice in earnest until a stroke forced him into retirement in 1957. Preferring poplar as a medium, he embarked on a famous series depicting the “Fall of Man,” a frank—and often explicitly sexual––portrayal of Adam and Eve’s idyllic life and temptation in the Garden of Eden. Biblical history furnishes his favorite subject matter, but he also dabbled in politics and portraiture in his small and sometimes sparsely-painted sculptures. Formally austere and sublimely balanced, Tolson’s intimately scaled, elegant carvings fascinated documentarians in Appalachia in the 1960s, securing him a spot at the 1968 Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife. He quickly rocketed to renown, ushered from a craft or folk context into the limelight of the normative New York artworld. Tolson’s work remains highly sought-after by collectors and highly celebrated by critics.