William Edmondson

 

EDMONDSON, WILLIAM
(1874–1951)
was an African American stone carver who is regarded as among America’s most important artists. He was one of five children of Jane Brown and OrangeEdmondson, who had been slaves on the adjacent Compton and Edmondson plantations in Davidson County, Tennessee. By 1890, after her husband’s death, JaneEdmondson moved her family from the Edmondson plantation to Nashville, where William lived for the rest of his life. He worked as a field hand and as a laborer at Nashville’s sewer works until about 1900, when he was hired by the railroad. He lost that job after suffering a leg injury in 1907, and then worked as a janitor at Nashville’s Woman’s Hospital until about 1930.By 1931 Edmondson had started a stone-carving business, offering gravestones and yard ornaments to members of the local African American community. He had prospered enough to purchase two lots on Nashville’s Fourteenth Avenue, where his home, studio, a display area, and an orchard were located. Edmondson was areligious man, and his faith served as inspiration and source material for his stone carvings. He said that stone carving was, for him, a God-given calling, that the Lordhad given him a vision of a gravestone, then told him to cut gravestones and stone figures. The angels, crucifixes, figures of a preacher, figures of Eve, Noah’s ark, a pulpit, and the gravestones he carved may have been intended to serve a higher calling; while figures of a lawyer, a teacher, birdbaths, a boxer that Edmondsonidentified as Jack Johnson, figures of Eleanor Roosevelt, various seated and standing figures, images of courting couples, and numerous animals verify that Edmondsonremained firmly rooted in the secular world and the African American community.One of Edmondson’s gravestones features a basrelief carving of a recumbent lamb. The motif, symbolizing Christ and innocence, was commonly placed atop achild’s gravestone throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century, and it is likely that he had seen such gravestones in Nashville’s Mount Ararat Cemetery. Other gravestones that he cut include flat slabs of stone whose shapes bear a curious resemblance to the outline of a human torso, sometimes with a face carved at the top. If Edmondson had indeed intended these gravestones to represent human forms, then he could have meant them to symbolize the soul of the departed literally rising fromthe grave.Using a five-pound hammer and railroad spikes that he modified into chisels to use for rough and finished carving, Edmondson carved from limestone that heacquired primarily from a nearby quarry. The softness of the stone enabled him to rough out the form, removing large amounts of material to create voids and spaces;his surface treatments range from coarse to smooth. Edmondson’s forms contain the minimum amount of information required to identify the subject. This refinementwas dictated, to a great extent, by his medium. Nonetheless, it sets his work apart from that of other self-taught artists, and helps to explain part of the appeal thatEdmondson’s art held for those interested in modern art, as comparisons were inevitably made between Edmondson’s work and modern sculpture, which led toEdmondson’s work receiving unprecedented attention.Between 1934 and 1937, fashion photographer Louise Dahl-Wolfe made several visits to Nashville and photographed Edmondson and his sculpture. She showedher photographs to Alfred H.Barr Jr., director of the Museum of Modern Art, and in 1937 a oneperson exhibition of Edmondson’s work was organized at themuseum, featuring a dozen examples. The show provided the first widespread exposure for Edmondson and his art, and it was also the first solo exhibition by anAfrican American artist to be organized by the museum. This exhibition was followed the next year by Edmondson’s inclusion in a broad survey of American art inParis.
See also

African American Folk Art (Vernacular Art); Alfred H.Barr Jr.; Gravestone Carving
.
BIBLIOGRAPHY
Thompson, Robert Farris.
The Art of William Edmondson.
Nashville, Tenn., 1999
Livingston, Jane, and John Beardsley.
Black Folk Art in America, 1930–1980.
Washington, D.C., 1982