Elijah Pierce


Pierce made carved relief panels that are frequently characterized as visual sermons and narrative tableaux. Pierce was born to an African American farming family inBaldwyn, Mississippi, and began carving as a child—mostly images of animals on tree trunks and some walking sticks that recall southern whittling traditions. Pierce’sturbulent youth included work as a barber’s assistant, religious conversion to the Baptist faith, false arrest for murdering a white man, and living as an itinerantthroughout the South and Midwest. In 1920 he received a lay preacher’s license from Mount Zion Baptist Church in Baldwyn. Three years later he settled inColumbus, Ohio, where he established himself as a successful barber, respected church leader, and acclaimed folk artist.Around 1932, after carving a small elephant, Pierce renewed his interest in working with wood. His talent and ambition progressed quickly. During the 1930s and1940s, Pierce took up itinerant preaching, using the monumental Book of Wood (Columbus Museum of Art), which he completed around 1932, and other carvings asteaching devices at tent revivals, churches, and fairs throughout the South and Midwest as well as in his house in Columbus. In 1967 his carvings attracted their firstnewspaper coverage; this gave him his first opportunity, a year later, to display his work as folk art and prompted him to set aside part of his barber shop as a galleryand studio in 1969In his ministry and his art, Pierce called on the tradition of African American evangelical preaching, which incorporates popular storytelling, especially folk variationson scriptural stories and parables. He considered his ability to see forms and subjects in wood as God’s gift of divination, and he frequently described his carvings assermons and messages. His interpretations of biblical events and characters—Noah’s ark, the crucifixion, Adam and Eve, Jonah and the fish—are the most didacticexpression of his desire to convey spiritual insight.Other significant relief carvings are his secular parables on the human condition, addressing everything from the vices of drinking, smoking, and gambling to thefleeting nature of time and earthly existence. Many panels reveal Pierce’s talent for social and political commentary, which focused largely on the American experience,especially that of African Americans. Slavery, emancipation, justice, civil rights, community leadership, and corruption are major themes, sometimes illustrated as portraits of Lincoln, Martin Luther King, the Kennedy brothers, and Richard Nixon. Other carvings are overtly autobiographical, depicting, for example, his birthplace,religious conversion, freemasonry, and love of sports.Most of Pierce’s works are shallow bas-relief panels, vertical or horizontal in orientation, that average 24 by 30 inches. He composed these panels in two distinctiveways. The first type of composition presents a centralized image or event in great detail. The second type pieces together vignettes and inscriptions that suggest thetradition of prophetic biblical charts. Both approaches invite the viewer to read the compositions as narratives. The balance of Pierce’s carvings are small freestandingefforts that favor subjects such as animals and scenes of daily life, as well as several elaborate walking sticks. His modest means dictated the use of common materials such as house paint and glitter to embellish the carvings, and his bold use of color endows the works with a sense of drama.Although Pierce’s works were done primarily to enhance his community-oriented ministry, they reflect a confident visual artistry that has attracted the attention of collectors, dealers, curators, and artists involved in championing contemporary folk art since the 1960s. Numerous one-person and group exhibitions and publicationshave established his significance as a modern interpreter of African American religion and culture, and as one of the country’s most important twentieth-century folk artists. In 1982, his work was featured in the nationally touring exhibition “Black Folk Art in America, 1930–1980,” and he also received the prestigious NationalHeritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Distinguished Humanitarian Arts Award from the Ohio Arts Council. In 1983, the Elijah PierceArt Gallery became a National Historic Site in the National Register of Historic Places. In 1985, the Columbus Museum of Art established the most extensive publiccollection of Pierce’s art with its acquisition of more than 100 works and archival materials from his estate. Pierce’s carvings are also well represented in other major public collections in the United States.