Artist Profile – William Edmondson
Born in 1874 to former slaves in Davidson County, Tennessee (near Nashville), William Edmondson began his astounding sculptural practice in his fifties. Today he is internationally renowned as one of the greatest stone carvers of the 20th century. When he was sixteen, Edmondson’s family moved to Nashville proper, and he worked for the city sewer works and then the Nashville-Chattanooga and St. Louis railroads. Other early jobs included stints as a farmhand and stonemason’s assistant and a position as a janitor at Women’s Hospital (now Baptist Hospital). At the onset of the Great Depression, Edmondson lost his hospital job, and in the early 1930s experienced a heavenly vision, including a disembodied voice instructing him to “pick up [his] tools and start to work on a tombstone.” As he poetically testified: “I looked up in the sky and right there in the noon daylight, He hung a tombstone out for me to make.” A devout member of the United Primitive Baptist Church, Edmondson promptly complied with this divine directive, and soon the yard behind his house began to fill with limestone tombstones and sculptures. In 1935, his work came to the attention of Sidney Hirsch, a Vanderbilt professor, and soon after Edmondson’s carvings were photographed by Louise Dahl-Wolfe and Edward Weston. In 1937, Edmondson became the first African American artist to have a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Edmondson regularly referred to his works—originally intended as tombstones for Mount Ararat (today Greenwood West), a local African American cemetery––as “miracles.” Potent and elegant distillations of form, his sculptures achieve a charged presence as reminiscent of modernist sculpture as of African American vernacular funerary sculpture. His subjects ranged from the Biblical to the banal, and portraits of Eleanor Roosevelt and Jack Johnson mingled with crucifixions, arks, and angels as well as packs of squirrels, birds, horses, and other “critters.” His primary interest seems to have been the figure, human and animal, and his works consistently reflect the most eloquent and efficient means to impart a meditative, reductive grace to the subject. The suppleness and softness evident in the stone belie his unorthodox tools and media: he used a modified railroad spike as a chisel to shape limestone chunks salvaged from demolished city buildings and curbs. As his fame grew, city workers often delivered stone to his home for free. By the late 1940s, illness had forced Edmondson to retire from sculpting. He died in 1951 and was buried in Mount Ararat Cemetery.
Books and Exhibition Catalogs:
Lowe, Harry, Carl Zibart and Walter Sharp. Will Edmondson’s Mirkels. Cheekwood: The Tennessee Fine Arts Center at Cheekwood, 1964.
Fuller, Edmund L. Visions in Stone: The Sculpture of William Edmondson. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1973
Rogerson, Ann S. William Edmondson: Visions in Stone. Montclair, NJ: The Montclair Art Museum, 1975.
William Edmondson: A Retrospective. Nashville, TN: Tennesse State Museum, 1981.
William Edmondson/David Butler: The William L. Fuller, Jr., Bequest to the Newark Museum. Newark, NJ: Newark Museum, 1989.
Miracles: The Sculptures of William Edmondson. Philadelphia: Janet Fleisher Gallery, 1994.
The Art of William Edmondson. Nashville, TN: Cheekwood Museum of Art/University Press of Mississippi, 1999.
Books and Exhibition Catalogs that Include Edmondson:
The American Art Book. New York, NY: Phaidon Press, 1999.
Beardon, Romare and Harry Henderson. A History of African-American Artists from 1792 to Present. New York: Pantheon Books, 1993.
Bishop, Robert. American Folk Sculpture. New York, NY: E.P. Dutton, 1974.
Bishop, Robert, and Jacqueline M. Atkins. Folk Art in American Life. New York, NY: Viking Studio Books, 1996.
Black Art Ancestral Legacy: The African Impulse in African-American Art. New York, NY: Harry N. Abrams/Dallas Museum of Art, 1989.
Common Ground/Uncommon Vision: The Michael and Julie Hall Collection of American Folk Art.
Milwaukee, WI: Milwaukee Art Museum, 1993.
Dewhurst, C. Kurt, Betty MacDowell, and Marsha Mac Dowell. Religious folk Art in America; Reflections of Faith. New York, NY: E.P. Dutton/Museum of American Folk Art, 1983.
Hartigan, Lynda. Made With Passion: The Hemphill Folk Art Collection in the National Museum of American Art. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1990.
Lipman, Jean, Robert Bishop, Elizabeth Warren, and Sharon Eisenstat. Five-Star Folk Art: One Hundred American Masterpieces. New York, NY: Harry N. Abrams, 1990.
Livingston, Jane, and John Beardsley. Black Folk Art in America: 1930-1980. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi/Center for the Study of Southern Culture for the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 1982.
Maizels, John. Raw Creation: Outsider Art and Beyond. London: Phaidon Press, 1996.
Millenial Dreams: Vision and Prophecy in American Folk Art. New York: Museum of American Folk Art, 1999.
Moses, Kathy. Outsider Art of the South. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing, 1999.
New World Folk Art: Old World Survivals and Cross-Cultural Inspirations, 1492-1992. Cleveland, OH: Cleveland State University Art Gallery, 1992.
Passionate Visions of the American South: Self-Taught Artists from 1940 to the Present. New Orleans: New Orleans Museum of Art, 1993.
Perry, Regenia A. Free Within Ourselves: African-American Artists in the Collection of the National Museum of American Art. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1992.
Pictured in My Mind: Contemporary American Self-Taught Art from the Collection of Kurt Gitter and Alice Rae Yelen. Birmingham, AL: Birmingham Museum of Art, 1995.
Powell, Richard J. Black Art and Culture in the 20th Century. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1997.
Ricco, Roger, and Frank Maresca, with Julia Weissman. American Primitive: Discoveries in Folk Sculpture. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988.
Rumford, Beatrix, and Carolyn J. Weekley. Treasures of American Folk Art: From the Abby Aldrich Rockafeller Folk Art Center. Boston: Little, Brown/Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1989.
Self-Taught Artists of the 20th Century: An American Anthology. New York: Museum of American Folk Art, 1998.
Self-Taught Outsider, Art Brut: Materpieces from the Robert M. Greenurg Collection. New York: Ricco/Maresca Gallery, 1999.
Simpson, Milton. Folk Erotica: Celebrating Centuries of Erotic Americana. New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1994.
Souls Grown Deep: African-American Vernacular Art of the South. Volume One: The Tree Gave the Dove a Leaf. Atlanta, GA: Tinwood, 2000.
A Time to Reap: Late-Blooming Folk Artists. South Orange, NJ: Seaton Hall University/Museum of American Folk Art, 1985.
Transmitters: The Isolate Artist in America. Philadelphia, PA: Philadelphia College of Art, 1981.
Fagaly, William A. “At God’s Command: The Sculpture of William Edmondson.” Arts Quarterly [New Orleans Museum of Art] 20, no. 2 (April/May/June 1978): 16-17.
Howorth, Lisa. “Fear God and Give Glory to Him: Sacred Art in the South.” Reckon: The Magazine of Southern Culture 1, no. 1 & 2 (1995): 40-51.
Hutton, Maridean. “Dialogues With Stone: William Edmondson, Ernest ‘Popeye’ Reed, and Ted Ludwiczak.” Folk Art 21, no. 1 (Spring 1996): 46-54.
LeQuire, Louise. “Edmondson’s Art Reflects His Faith, Strong and Pure.” Smithsonian Magazine (August 1981): 51-55.
Lindsey, Jack L. “William Edmondson.” Folk Art 20, no. 1 (Spring 1995): 42-47.
Perry, Regenia A. “Contemporary African American Folk Art in America: An Overview.” International Review of African American Art 11, no. 1 (1993): 4-30.
Russell, John. “A Remarkable Exhibition of Black Folk Art in America.” New York Times, 14 February 1982, Art.
Yelen, Alice Rae. “Passionate Visions of the American South.” American Art Review (February-March 1995): 144
4. Solo Exhibitions
Sculpture by William Edmondson. Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, 1937.
William Edmondson. Nashville Artists Guild, Nashville, TN, 1951.
Will Edmondson’s Mirkels. Tennessee Fine Arts Center at Cheekwood, Nashville, TN, 1964.
Folk Carvings by Will Edmondson. Museum of Early American Folk Arts (now Museum of American Folk Art), New York, NY, 1965.
William Edmondson: Visions in Stone, Montclair Art Museum, Montclair, NJ, 1975.
William Edmondson: A Retrospective. Tennessee State Museum, Nashville, TN, 1981.
William Edmondson. Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, New York, NY, 1981.
The Art of William Edmondson. Cheekwood Museum of Art, Nashville, TN, 2000; Museum of American Folk Art, New York, NY, 2000; Memorial Gallery, Rochester, NY, 2000-2001; The High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA, 2001; The Mennello Museum of American Folk Art, Orlando, FL, 2001.
5. Selected Group Exhibitions
Trois Siècles d’Art aox Etats-Unis (Three Centuries of Art in the United States.) Musée Jeue de Paume, Paris, France, 1938;
American Negro Art: 19th and 20th Centuries. Downtown Gallery, New York, NY, 1941; Nashville Art Gallery, Nashville, TN, 1941.
Twentieth Century Folk Art. Museum of American Folk Art, New York, NY, 1970.
Black Folk Art in America: 1930-1980. Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. 1982; J.B. Speed Museum, Louisville, KY, 1982; The Brooklyn Museum, New York, NY, 1982; Craft and Folk Art Museum, Los Angeles, CA, 1982-1983; The Institute for the Arts, Rice University, Houston, TX, 1983.
William Edmondson/David Butler: The Edmund Fuller Bequest to the NEwark Museum, Newark Museum, Newark, NJ, 1986.
Bill Traylor, William Edmondson, and the Modernist Impulse. Krannert Art Museum, Urbana, IL, 2004; The Studio Museum Harlem, New York, NY, 2005.
6. Museum Collections
Cheekwood Museum of Art, Nashville, TN
Hirshorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.
Mable Larson Gallery, Austin Peay University, Clarksville, TN
McClung Museum, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN
Newark Museum of Art, Newark, NJ
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.
Tennessee State Museum, Nashville, TN
University of Rochester Art Gallery, Rochester, NY
Compiled by Samantha Mitchell