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 Davidson County, Tennessee, the son of two former slaves, somewhere between 1870 and 1886. 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 may have been born in December, 1874.
One of six children, Edmondson 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 sustained at the Railway in 1907, Edmondson took a job as a custodian at the Nashville Women’s Hospital, where he worked until the hospital closed in 1931.
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. After the closing of the hospital in 1931, he worked a number of part-time jobs and sold vegetables grown in his backyard.
Edmondson entered the world of sculpture in 1934. He reported that he received a vision from God, who told him to start sculpting: “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. I knowed it was God telling me what to do.” He began his career by working on these tombstones, which he sold or gave 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 also sculpted a number of popular figures such as Eleanor Roosevelt and prizefighter Jack Johnson. 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, managing partner 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 several 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 Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Edmondson was accorded a one-man show at that Museum in 1937.
Edmondson died on February 7, 1951 at his home in Nashville, TN, where illness had confined him to bed for several months. He was buried in Mt. Ararat Cemetery, Nashville’s oldest black cemetery. It is unknown whether his grave was marked with a tombstone. If so, it has been lost. Mt. Ararat burial records of the period were lost in a fire, so his exact gravesite is unknown.
Since his death, Edmondson’s work has gradually come to be highly appreciated by critics and collectors, and his sculptures garner up to $70,000-$300,000 at auction. After very sporadic exhibition through the 1950s and 1960s (mostly as part of “folk art” exhibits), collector Edmund Fuller wrote a biography of Edmondson which was published in 1973. His sculpture was included in the influential “Two Centuries of Black American Art” exhibition curated by Fisk University Art Department Chairman David C. Driskell 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 work as fine art. Through the 1980s and 1990s 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 and critical essays on his life and work. A 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.
As of 2013, the City of Nashville was 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.
Photo: Nashville Public Radio0