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William Edmondson

 (1874 - 1951)
William Edmondson was active/lived in Tennessee.  William Edmondson is known for folk art sculpture, stone carving.

William Edmondson

Biography from the Archives of askART

Biography photo for William Edmondson
William Edmondson (1874 - 1951) was an African-American folk art sculptor. In 1937 Edmondson was the first African-American artist to be given a one-person show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

William Edmondson was born in 1874 in Davidson County, Tennessee. He did not know the exact year of his birth because of a fire that destroyed the family Bible. Recent research into census records indicates that he was born in December, 1874. He was one of six children of freed slaves Orange and Jane Edmondson. He grew up in what was then a rural part Davidson County on the Compton plantation where his mother and father had been enslaved and now worked as sharecroppers. He had little or no formal education, and it was reported that he was unable to read or write. His father died sometime around 1889, and he and his siblings and mother moved into Nashville.

William got a good job working at the expansive new Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis Railway shops. After an injury he sustained at the Railway shops around 1909, Edmondson took a job as a janitor at the white Women's Hospital, where he worked for roughly 20 years.

Edmondson never married. His wages at Women's hospital allowed him to buy a modest home in the segregated Edgehill neighborhood in Nashville. He shared the home with his mother and sister until their deaths, as well as occasionally other siblings, nieces and nephews. When the Great Depression hit and the hospital closed in 1931, he did some part-time jobs and sold vegetables that he grew in his backyard.

Edmondson entered the world of sculpture by a divine command. He reported that he received a vision from God, who told him to start sculpting. He began his career by working on tombstones, which were sold or given to friends and family in the community. Soon he began carving lawn ornaments, birdbaths, and decorative sculptures. He worked primarily with chunks of discarded limestone from demolished buildings, which were delivered to him by wrecking companies' trucks.

Edmondson's work was influenced by his faith and his membership in a nearby Primitive Baptist congregation. His sculptures are straightforward and emphatic forms ranging from one to three feet in height, many sharing his unique religious symbolism. He carved figures of biblical characters, angels, doves, turtles, eagles, rabbits, horses and other real and fanciful creatures, local community icons such as preachers, lawyers and school teachers, celebrities of the day who were important to the African American community, and a small number of nude figures. He sold his sculptures along with selling vegetables.

About five years later, his art was "discovered" by a white neighbor, Sidney Hirsch and his friends, Alfred and Elizabeth Starr. Alfred Starr, proprietor of a chain of theaters catering to the black community and his wife Elizabeth, a painter, became enthusiastic patrons and supporters of Edmondson's work. They introduced Edmondson to dozens of artist friends, including Starr's boyhood friend Meyer (Mike) Wolfe and his wife Louise Dahl-Wolfe.

Dahl-Wolfe was a photographer who had recently begun work for Harper's Bazaar Magazine in New York. She made dozens of photographs of Edmondson at work in his backyard shop, which she took to New York. She brought Edmondson's work to the attention of fellow Tennessean Thomas Mabry and his boss Alfred Barr, the director of the fledgling Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).

They expressed interest in his work and Edmondson was accorded a one-man show at that Museum in 1937.

In 1938, through MoMA's influence, William Edmondson's sculpture was included in the "Three Centuries of Art in the United States" in Paris. Interest in his work on the national and international stage was short-lived, and he was viewed primarily as a novelty, or exemplar of the "primitive" race-memory of an untutored, naive old Negro stonecarver. He didn't receive a solo exhibition of his work again during his lifetime.

Locally, Alfred Starr continued to promote Edmondson's work to his artistic friends and acquaintances, who bought work directly from Edmondson's "sculpture yard" or through the local Lyzon Gallery. Starr introduced the famed modernist photographer Edward Weston to Edmondson in 1941, and Weston made several striking photographs of Edmondson at work in his shop and yard.

Edmondson's career lasted for about fifteen years. His work never commanded large sums during his lifetime. In 1939 and again in 1941, he worked under the Works Progress Administration, a government sponsored relief program that included artists. In the late 1940s, his health began to fail and his artistic production slowed. Edmondson professed to be uninterested in fame, though he appears to have struggled financially for the final years of his life. He is believed to have created about 300 works during his working lifetime.

Edmondson died on February 8, 1951 at his home in Nashville, TN, where illness had confined him to bed for several months. He was buried in Mt. Ararat Cemetery in Nashville. Due to a fire, Mt. Ararat burial records of the period are lost, so his exact gravesite is unknown and any tombstone has been lost.

Since his death, his work has gradually come to be highly appreciated by critics and collectors. After sporatic exhibitions through the 1950's and 1960's (mostly as part of "folk art" exhibits), his sculpture was included in the seminal "Two Centuries of Black American Art" exhibition, curated by Fisk University Art Department Chairman David C. Driskell in 1976.

Collector Edmund Fuller wrote a brief biography of Edmondson in 1976. In 1981 the new Tennessee State Museum opened with a major solo exhibition of Edmondson's work, and the essays in the accompanying catalog sought to elevate appreciation of Edmondson's art. Through the 1980's and 1990's Edmondson's sculptures were exhibited extensively, though often in the limiting context of the labels "outsider", "folk art", "self-taught", and "naive".

In 1999, Nashville's Cheekwood Museum of Art mounted a major traveling retrospective exhibition and catalog that included in-depth biographical, sociological and critical essays on his life and work. A major 2006 exhibition, "William Edmondson, Bill Traylor, and the Modernist Impulse," paired Edmondson with another well-known self-taught artist and argued for Edmondson's acceptance as an artist without limiting labels such as "outsider" and "folk artist".

As of 2013, the City of Nashville is in the process of renovating a city park that is named in Edmondson's honor. The park will include sculpture and landscaping and is located in a traditionally African-American neighborhood.

"William Edmondson", Wikipedia,  // (Accessed 8/15/2013)

Biography from the Archives of askART
Biography photo for William Edmondson

A native of Nashville and the son of former slaves, William Edmondson was the first African-American artist to be featured in a solo show at New York's Museum of Modern Art (1937).

For this exhibition MoMA director Alfred Barr remarked, "Usually the naïve artist works in the easier medium of painting. Edmondson, however, has chosen to work in limestone, which he attacks with extraordinary courage and directness, to carve out simple, emphatic forms." Robert Bishop, the late director of the Museum of American Folk Art, declared Edmondson to be "one of the outstanding folk carvers--if not the outstanding one--of the twentieth century."

Edmondson's first works were memorial gravestones. Later he created animal, human, and celestial figures. His carvings were inspired by his faith, community, and culture. He told the story of how God spoke to him. "I was out in the driveway with some old pieces of stone when I heard a voice telling me to pick up my tools and start to work on a tombstone. I looked up in the sky and right there in the noon daylight He hung a tombstone out for me to make."

Showcasing Edmondson's sculpture and placing it in the mainstream of American art for the first time, the Cheekwood Museum of Art in Nashville organized a traveling exhibition to four other museum venues of about 40 pieces of his work in 2000-2001.

Special Periodical References are:

The New York Times (long feature story with photos), Sunday May 14, 2000 in Art/Architecture section.

Folk Art Magazine (feature story and front cover), Spring 2000.

Submitted January 2003 based on material provided by Allen Meadors, January 2003

Biography from The Johnson Collection
Biography photo for William Edmondson
The first African American artist awarded a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art, William Edmondson was a self-taught stonecutter who regarded his craft as a divine calling: “Jesus has planted the seed of carving in me.” Edmondson allowed his chosen materials—often pieces of limestone—to inspire his subject matter which included memorial tombstones, animals, Biblical figures and angels, birdbaths, and garden ornaments.

Edmondson was born to freed slaves on a former plantation on the outskirts of Nashville, Tennessee. He never learned to read or write, and much of his childhood was spent working as a hired hand for a white landowner. At sixteen, he found jobs in Nashville at the city sewer line, followed by one at a racecourse.

The Nashville, Chattanooga, and St. Louis Railway employed him in its shop, but a leg injury in 1907 forced him to leave that position. For the following twenty-five years, Edmondson worked as a janitor and orderly at the Women’s Hospital in Nashville until its closing in 1931.

A staunch Baptist, Edmondson turned to stonecutting after receiving a message from God: “I was out in the driveway with some old pieces of stone when I heard a voice telling me to pick up my tools and start to work on a tombstone. I looked up in the sky and right there in the noon daylight He hung a tombstone for me to make. . . . God was telling me to cut figures.”

His first tools were rudimentary, including a chisel fashioned from a railroad stake. Members of his church and community were his first customers, purchasing tombstones and other cut stones for prices as modest as five or ten dollars.

Edmondson’s life changed dramatically after Louise Dahl-Wolfe, a noted photographer for Harper’s Bazaar, came to visit. Once back in New York, she showed her photographs to the curator and director at the Museum of Modern Art, who decided to mount an exhibition of Edmondson’s work in 1937, making him the first black artist to have a one-man show at the fledgling institution.

The following year, his work was included in Three Centuries of Art in the United States at Paris’ Musée du Jeu du Paume. Despite this international recognition, it was not until 1941 that Edmondson’s work was publicly displayed in his hometown at the Nashville Art Gallery.

While many of Edmondson’s pieces were inspired by religious figures, he also portrayed contemporaries: Eleanor Roosevelt and the prizefighters Jack Johnson and Joe Louis. It is estimated that between 1931 and 1948, when he stopped for health reasons, Edmondson carved three hundred stones. These sculptures are at once emphatic and understated, symmetrical objects whose dimensions were determined by the original block. He generally rounded his edges and did not concern himself with details. At times, the figure is not fully released from the stone and often there is a humorous tone to his depictions. Since Edmondson worked alone and frequently used stones from buildings being demolished, the scale of his pieces is necessarily small.

Posthumously, as interest in self-taught African American artists grew, Edmondson began to receive broader curatorial recognition. The Tennessee State Museum’s 1981 inaugural exhibition was a retrospective of his career, an exhibition that circulated to other venues under the auspices of the Southern Arts Federation.

Other museums, including the American Folk Art Museum in New York and the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum in Williamsburg, own examples of his work. Following his death in 1951, Edmondson was interred in a Nashville cemetery. Burial records have since been lost, and the artist’s precise gravesite and any accompanying tombstone are unknown.

Submitted by Holly Watters, Registrar and Gallery Manager, The Johnson Collection, Spartanburg, South Carolina

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About  William Edmondson

Born:  1874 - Davidson County, Tennessee
Died:   1951 - Nashville, Tennessee
Known for:  folk art sculpture, stone carving

Essays referring to
William Edmondson

Black American Artists