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.
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.
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.
“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)