WILLIAM EDMONDSON
1874-1951 (USA)

Edmondson has chosen to work in limestone, which he attacks with extraordinary courage and directness. The spirit of his work does not betray the inspiration he believes to be his active guide.
Alfred H Barr Jr, MoMA

Biography
EXHIBITED AT THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART IN 1937, WILLIAM EDMONSON IS WIDELY ACKNOWLEDGED AS THE FIRST AND MOST IMPORTANT MODERN AFRICAN AMERICAN SCULPTOR OF THE 20TH CENTURY.

THE SON OF EMANCIPATED SLAVES, EDMONDSON GREW UP IN THE RURAL GHETTO OF DAVIDSON COUNTY, TENNESSEE. HE ASSUMED THE NAME OF THE OWNER OF THE FARM TO WHICH HIS PARENTS HAD BELONGED AND, WITH LITTLE FORMAL EDUCATION, DRIFTED THROUGH MENIAL LABOUR FOR MUCH OF HIS WORKING LIFE.

IN THE 1930S EDMONDSON JOINED THE UNITED PRIMITIVE BAPTIST CHURCH, WHERE A DIVINE CALLING INSTRUCTED HIM TO COMMENCE A SCULPTURAL PRACTICE. EDMONDSON’S CONVERSION WAS IMMEDIATE. WITHIN WEEKS HE HAD CREATED AN OPEN-AIR STUDIO IN THE CHURCH CEMETERY AND, USING A HAMMER AND RAILROAD SPIKE, BEGAN TO CARVE TOMBSTONES FROM OFF-CUTS OF LOCALLY MINED LIMESTONE.

THE ORGANIC MATERIAL BECAME EDMONDSON’S MEDIUM OF CHOICE. ELEGANTLY TEXTED GRAVE-MARKERS GRADUATED TO POWERFUL FIGURATIVE HUMAN AND ANIMAL FORMS. YET EDMONDSON, BY NOW IN HIS LATE 50S, NEVER CONSIDERED HIS WORKS ART. THEY WERE MIRACLES, CREATED THROUGH HIM, NOT BY HIM, AND HE HUMBLY DISPLAYED THEM IN THE FRONT YARD WHERE HE MADE A LIVING SELLING FRUIT AND VEGETABLES.

IT WAS ETHNOGRAPHIC NASHVILLE COLLECTOR, SIDNEY HIRSCH, WHO DISCOVERED THE ARTIST AND INTRODUCED HIM TO HARPERS BAZAAR PHOTOGRAPHER, LOUISE DAHL-WOLFE. WHEN CURATOR THOMAS MABRY SAW HER IMPOSING STUDIES OF EDMONDSON IN HIS STUDIO, HE SHOWED THEM TO ALFRED BARR, DIRECTOR OF THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART IN NEW YORK. THEIR REACTION WAS SWIFT, AFFIRMATIVE AND RADICAL.

ALTHOUGH HE HAD RECEIVED NO FORMAL ARTISTIC TRAINING AND WAS BARELY ABLE TO READ OR WRITE, EDMONDSON OPENED HIS FIRST SOLO SHOW AT THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART IN 1937. CRITICS CELEBRATED HIS MONUMENTAL BIBLICAL AND AFRICAN AMERICAN ICONS AND MODERNIST PORTRAYALS OF THE ANIMAL KINGDOM. HE WAS EXHIBITED AT JEU DE PAUME IN PARIS IN AND PHOTOGRAPHED BY EDWARD WESTON.

EDMONDSON’S PRACTICE CONTINUED UNTIL HE RETIRED AT THE AGE OF 75. HE DIED JUST TWO YEARS LATER. HIS EARLY CARVINGS STILL STAND IN THE MOUNT ARARAT CEMETERY IN NASHVILLE. HIS REMAINING WORKS ARE HIGHLY SOUGHT AFTER AND CAN BE FOUND IN MAJOR MUSEUMS AND PRIVATE COLLECTIONS WORLDWIDE.

Bibliography

CATALOGUE OF EVERYTHING #6, THE MUSEUM OF EVERYTHING 2016

The Shadow of the Avant-Garde, Falk Wolf and Kasper König (Museum Folkwang) 2015

Free Within Ourselves: African-American Artists in the Collection of the National Museum of American Art, Regenia Perry (Smithsonian Institution) 1992

Made with Passion: The Hemphill Folk Art Collection, Lynda Roscoe Hartigan (Smithsonian Institution) 1990

Black Folk Art in America, 1930-1980, Jane Livingston and John Beardsley (University of Mississippi) 1982

William Edmondson: A Retrospective, Georgeanne Fletcher and Jym Knight (Tennessee Arts Commission) 1981

"Edmondson's Art Reflects His Faith, Strong and Pure", Louise LeQuire (Smithsonian Magazine) Aug 1981

Vision in Stone: The Sculpture of William Edmondson, Edmund Fuller (University of Pittsburgh Press) 1973

Will Edmondson's Mirkels, Harry Lowe, Carl Zibart, and Walter Sharp (Tennessee Fine Arts Center at Cheekwood) 1964

William Edmondson: Visions in Stone, Ann Rogerson (Montclair Art Museum) 1975

Exhibitions

Exhibition #6, The Museum of Everything (Rotterdam) 2016

THE MENNELLO MUSEUM OF AMERICAN FOLK ART (ORLANDO) 2001

THE HIGH MUSEUM OF ART (ATLANTA) 2001

WILLIAM EDMONDSON: A RETROSPECTIVE, TENNESSEE STATE MUSEUM (NASHVILLE) 1981

WILLIAM EDMONDSON: VISIONS IN STONE, MONTCLAIR ART MUSEUM 1975

LAJOLLA MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART 1970

FOLK CARVINGS BY WILL EDMONDSON, MUSEUM OF EARLY AMERICAN FOLK ARTS (NOW MUSEUM OF AMERICAN FOLK ART) (NEW YORK) 1965

WILL EDMONDSON’S MIRKELS, CHEEKWOOD MUSEUM OF ART (NASHVILLE) 1964

WILLIAM EDMONDSON, NASHVILLE ARTISTS GUILD 1951

SCULPTURE BY WILLIAM EDMONDSON, MUSEUM OF MODERN ART (NEW YORK) 1937