Artist Profile – Elijah Pierce
A Baptist preacher, barber, and one of the most important American wood carvers of the twentieth century, Elijah Pierce is often identified with Columbus, Ohio, where he lived much of his life and where most of his work resides. However, he was born on a cotton plantation in Baldwyn, Mississippi, the son of a former slave. His uncle Lewis Wallace taught him to whittle, but barbering attracted his attention as a trade. After the death of his first wife in 1915, Pierce joined the Great Migration north, working as an itinerant laborer and preacher, and he eventually followed his soon-to-be second wife Cornelia to Columbus, Ohio, in 1923. In Columbus he was employed steadily as a barber and began to carve more seriously. He presented Cornelia with a small carved elephant as a birthday present—he promised her a whole zoo, and Pierce’s art practice began with that menagerie.
By the 1930s, Pierce was making colorful painted-and-polished sculptural reliefs as well as freestanding figures. His reliefs illustrated Biblical scenes, popular cultural events and personages—particularly from sports and cinema––and autobiographical narratives. He opened his own barbershop in 1951, where he installed a woodworking studio and displayed his carvings. Pierce’s sculptures, already well-known in his community, garnered broader art world attention in the 1970s, and he exhibited nationally and internationally, retiring from barbering to concentrate exclusively on his art. He began to tackle more political subjects like the Civil Rights Movement and Watergate. In 1982 he won a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, in recognition of his cultural achievements. Pierce’s work, although concerned specifically with the African-American experience, maintains a wide appeal for its formal refinement and its direct, plainspoken communication of both religious and secular themes.