Doin’ the Lord’s Work

By LIZ HAGER

I’se just doing the Lord’s work. It ain’t got much style. God don’t want much style, but He gives you wisdom and speeds you along.

—William Edmondson

Ever since the Renaissance, when luminaries placed man at the center of the universe, societies have placed little value in tampering with one of the period’s most cherished tenets, namely that creative genius emanates solely from the individual. Every once in a while, however, a humble commoner comes along to remind us all of what the ancients knew only too well—that artists are merely conduits for the divine (or creative, if you prefer) force.  William Edmondson was such an uncommon commoner.

Some time after loosing his janitorial job in the early 1930s, Edmondson saw a heavenly vision. A disembodied voice called him to pick up his tools and start carving a tombstone:

I knowed it was God telling me what to do. First He told me to make tombstones. Then He told me to cut the figures. He gave me them two things. . . The Lord told me to cut something once and I said to myself I didn’t believe I could. He talked right back to me: “Yes, you can,” He told me. “Will, cut that stone and it better be limestone, too.”

This wasn’t Edmondson’s first vision. He described to a chronicler a time when he was 13 or 14 “doing in the cornfields,” when he saw “the flood.”  There was little doubt in Edmondson’s mind then: “I ain’t never read no books, nor no Bible, and I saw the water come. It come over the rocks, it covered up the rocks and went over the mountains. God, He just showed me how.”

Though he had no formal art training, Edmondson took this divine directive seriously. At the age of 57, Edmondson began using a hammer and a railroad spike on left-over limestone blocks or pieces he found at building demolitions. Soon the yard adjacent to his Nashville house began to fill up, first with funereal, and later garden, sculptures. Over a 17-year period he would carve over 300 pieces. He sold work to local church parishioners, and many of his pieces ended up in Nashville’s local black cemetery, Mount Ararat (today part of Greenwood West). Some are still there.

In 1935, Edmondson’s work came to the attention of Sidney Hirsch, a Vanderbilt (George Peabody College for Teachers) professor, poet and playwright and collector of ethnographic items from around the world. Hirsch struck up a friendship with Edmondson, bought pieces from the artist and introduced him to his friends, who bought sculptures.  One set of Hirsch’s friends introduced their friend, photographer Louise Dahl-Wolfe to the Edmondson. She ended up taking hundreds of photographs, eventually showing them to her friend Thomas Mabry, one of the curators at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

In 1937, labeling Edmondson’s work “modern primitive,” Mabry brought his work to the museum, making him the first African-American artist to have a solo show at MOMA.  The following year, Edmondson’s work included in the “Three Centuries of Art in the United States,” exhibit placed at the Jeu de Paume in Paris.  In 1941,  Edward Weston “discovered” Edmondson. And so a few more pictures were taken.

Edmondson regularly referred to his works as “miracles.” Not unlike most other artists, he drew inspiration from the beings that inhabited his world, whether neighbors or nurses, crows or squirrels. But he also drew heavily from his understanding of the Bible—crucifixions, preachers, arks, angels, and lambs—and occasionally from the imaginary realm (mermaids).  William Edmondson even rendered a portrait or two—Eleanor Roosevelt and boxer Jack Johnson (a bald man, to whom the sculptor gave a curly head of hair).       Above all, Edmondson was interested in the figure, though not in a wholly realistic rendering of it (some of the figures are barely liberated from their blocks).  He was partial to pairs—Adam & Eve, Porch Ladies, “Mary & Martha”—perhaps the result of Biblical examples (the animals of Noah’s ark) planted firmly in his mind. Whether two- or four-legged, Edmondson’s creatures bear an uncanny resemblance to each other, and one imagines them all as members of an extended family, citizens of Edmondsonia if you will. Although they may all look alike, the sculptor has imbued each with his/her own separate and quiet dignity.

 

Since the art world rediscovered Edmondson’s work in 2000, many have made much about the proto-abstract nature of his work; some have conjoined him with Brancusi and modernist sculpture. Surely,  Edmondson would have been bemused by those kind of distinctions; after all, he was doin’ the Lord’s work. Although his work garnered attention in New York, in Nashville his pieces continued to sell for as little as $5 and $10.

Edmondson died in 1951, after ill health forced him to give up sculpting. He was buried in Mount Ararat Cemetery.

Although his work is today in the collections of  The American Folk Art Museum, the Smithsonian,  the Hirshhorn, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Montclair Art Museum, and the Newark Museum, today William Edmondson today lies in an unmarked grave, his headstone long since gone and any records indicating its location burned. That’s strangely befitting for a man who did not seek fame or fortune, never credited himself for his abilities, but gave his creative life over to a higher force.

Wider Connections

I Heard God Talking to Me

“American Monument” (Artnet)

Cheekwood 2000 Edmondson Exhibition

Louise Dahl-Wolfe at Stanley + Wise

And Beyond. . .

Roberta Smith—Altered Views in the House of Modernism (NY Times)

Claire Lieberman—Stone: Mystery or Malaise (Sculpture Magazine)

Foundation for Self-Taught American Artists

Gary Alan Fine: Everyday Genius: Self-Taught Art and the Culture of Authenticity

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5 Responses to “Doin’ the Lord’s Work”

  1. Interestingly enough, we are studying African American Folk Art this week in class and looked at the work of Edmondson (among others). I particularly liked this quote from an article by which looked at the ways his art is folk and the ways it is not – in fact, the whole discussion regarding mainstream’s view of Black folk art is very interesting:
    Eugene Metcaff in his article on Black Art, Folk Art, and Social Control points out that it’s Edmondson’s gravestones which are really folk art. Grave markers were (and are) the center of a complex of ideas and beliefs that can be traced back to Africa. They remain important symbols of black identity, social stability and religious transcendence. As a gravestone maker, Edmondson operated in his community as a stabilizer and promoter of important black cultural traditions.
    He goes on to write “The unique nature of William Edmondson’s art is not due to his being almost as sophisticated as his white contemporaries. It lies instead in the heroic human and artistic attempt to create meaningful images that are bot stabilized in life-sustaining traditions and responsive to individual needs.

  2. Did you see the quilt show last year (?) at the De Young. It was stunning – work that is utilitarian and aesthetically beautiful. Here’s a link to their website:
    http://www.quiltsofgeesbend.com/

    • Thanks for the linkage to the Gee’s Bend quilts. Venetian Red covered the quilts last Spring, but I didn’t think to link to this post.

      > http://venetianred.net/2008/05/27/inner-sympathy-of-meaning/

      To be sure, the quilts are among the finest examples of American textile art. However, I found that many of them transcended the decorative language of textiles (as well as the utilitarian nature of craft) and achieved that soulful essence I associate with good art. While not every “craft” item embodies the sublime, some of those quilts most definitely break through that often arbitrary and artificial perimeter established by “high art.”

  3. This is a wonderful posting.; it is richly detailed and informative. You really covered all of the bases. You highlight the relationship of class in art without any maudlin sentimentality. This is a true tribute to the artist.

  4. God talked to Edmondson, Edmondson talked to me.
    Thanks for patching us in, Liz.

    Bob

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