William Edmondson, a down home artist forging beauty from stone
On this date we recall the birth of William Edmondson in 1863. He was a black sculptor and the first Black artist to achieve a one-man exhibition in America.
A child of slaves, he was born in the Hillsboro section of Davidson County, next to Nashville, Tennessee. His father died while he and his siblings--four brothers and a sister--were young.
William's education was minimal and his early job resume consisted of labor on farms and as an orderly in the Baptist Hospital in Nashville. Everywhere he worked he was known for his independence and wit. It was in 1931 that he began working as a stonemason’s helper. It was here that the sculptor in him emerged.
He forged and ground his own chisels from old railroad spikes and the steady ring of his hammer became a neighborhood sound. Through the Depression this slow, lonely work created many animal forms, "critters” as he called them; if anyone remarked about them he‘d say it was “the Lord’s gift.”
In about 1934, Sidney Hirsch from Vanderbilt University came upon Edmondson and his work. Amazed at the beauty, the pieces came to the attention of Alfred and Elizabeth Starr who knew members of the board of the Museum of Modern Art.
From October to December in 1937, his exhibit was shown. Unfortunately racism kept a damper on the success of the show. The editor of Harper’s Bazaar attempting to write an article on Edmondson, was stopped by it publisher, William Randolph Hearst, who had a terrible prejudice about black people being shown as anything but servants in his magazine. His hometown remained racially entrenched and oblivious to his success as well.
In 1938, his sculpture was included in "Three Centuries of Art in the United States." On February 11, 1941, he was honored with a one-man show at the Nashville Art Gallery. In 1951, Edmondson was posthumously honored by the Nashville Artist Guild.
Edmondson's pieces were included in other exhibitions: Nashville's Peabody College (1951); New York's Willard Gallery; Cheekwood (Tennessee Botanical Gardens and Fine Arts Center) and Lyzon Galleries in Nashville (1964); City College of New York and the LaJolla Museum of Contemporary Art (1967); Willard Gallery and Newark Museum (1971); and a one-man show at the Monteclair Art Museum in 1975. He got his first showing in Nashville in 1941 and it was not until 1951 that the Nashville Artist Guild presented a large exhibit of his work, the year he died.
Edmondson quit sculpting in 1941 because of ill health, and he died February 7, 1951.
The June 1981, opening of the Tennessee State Museum featured an exhibition and illustrated catalogue of Edmondson's sculptures.
A History of African-American Artist from 1792 to Present,
by Romare Bearden & Harry Henderson
Copyright 1993 by Romare Bearden & Harry Henderson
Pantheon Books, NY