The William Edmondson: A Monumental Vision exhibition catalogue makes a significant contribution to the scholarship on Edmondson, while stressing the critical need for more. The Barnes Foundation has mounted the largest solo exhibition of Nashville sculptor William Edmondson in decades, which has reignited century-long speculations regarding the artist’s agency in the past and his precarious legacy today. Edmondson (1874 -1951) was never formally educated, nor was he a trained sculptor. The son of two formerly enslaved parents, Edmondson worked as a sharecropper, a racehorse swipe, a railroad worker, and a hospital orderly before he came to sculpture in his mid-fifties. Inspired by a divine vision, Edmondson was called by God to carve tombstones and grave markers from blocks of limestone. Both an entrepreneurial enterprise and an expression of faith, Edmondson’s sculptural practice quickly expanded to include lawn ornaments and figures—nurses, angels, and critters. He rose to fame as the first Black artist to have a monographic exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York in 1937. While that exhibition secured his tenuous place in the art historical canon, the racist and demeaning language used to describe Edmondson continues to impact his legacy to this day.
Many of the myths that follow Edmondson’s story originate from MoMA’s infamous 1937 press release, which described the artist as “simple, almost illiterate, entirely unspoiled, and happy in his work.” Labeling Edmondson a “modern primitive,” the museum attempted to situate him within art historical discourses that legitimized American modernism, and placed Edmondson in a racial hierarchy that situated him and other artists of color below their white, formally educated peers. Curator and educator Kelli Morgan reckons with MoMA’s 1937 exhibition in her catalogue contribution. Her essay considers the social and political motivations of the young, undefined institution. She unpacks colonial histories of extraction, race making, and regional prejudice to explain why the idea of an Edmondson was palatable within a white supremacist agenda, even while the real Edmondson actively defied it. The beliefs that Edmondson carved with repurposed railroad spikes, that he could not read or write, or, most damaging, that he created in an isolated cultural vacuum, all persist in public discourse even after decades of scholarship have debunked these myths time and again.
In addition to general racism, these myths may persist because so little of Edmondson’s voice remains for the public, or even the most adept of scholars, to contend with. The recorded words and images of Edmondson have all been mediated through the eyes of others—most often white photographers, journalists, collectors, and scholars. Many quotes attributed to Edmondson are written in “eye dialect,” a stylistic way of deliberately misspelling words that has historically been weaponized against Black Americans to characterize them as ignorant. Edmondson quotes should be read with skepticism as they have been written and rewritten to better reflect the racial politics of the writer. The same is true of sculptures that have been named and renamed to suit the desires and purposes of private collectors and cultural institutions. Even photographs of Edmondson are not to be taken at face value. Edmondson was famously depicted by three white photographers, Louise Dahl-Wolfe in 1937, Edward Weston in 1941, and Consuelo Kanaga in 1951. While these images offer a valuable visual representation of Edmondson and his yard, they also reflect the mediated dynamics between white photographers and their Black subject. Furthermore, these images have been circulated more widely, in cultural institutions, scholarly publications, and the art market, than the artist’s sculptures themselves.
The Barnes Foundation catalogue and exhibition address the myth that Edmondson was discovered by his white patrons. Sidney Mttron Hirsch, Alfred and Elizabeth Starr, and most prominently, Louise Dahl-Wolfe are most often credited with this “discovery” implying that Edmondson was lost or hidden before he was acknowledged by white tastemakers. However, Edmondson’s earliest patrons were his Black neighbors, for whom he made tombstones and lawn ornaments. Edmondson’s work gave character to his small, Nashville community, long before MoMA deemed it “Art.” He sold fruits and vegetables from his gardens, attended the Primitive Baptist Church, and held social gatherings in his yard, where visitors would be surrounded by his limestone sculptures in various stages of completion. Curator and scholar Leslie Hammond discusses the significance of Edmondson’s yard space in her catalogue essay. With a keen focus on his spirituality, King Hammond demonstrates how Edmondson’s carving technique, subject matter, and style could not have developed outside of his geographical, religious, and communal context in which he lived.
What of Edmondson remains unmediated and understudied are the sculptures themselves, which still embody his unique expressions of vision and spirit. Jenn Marshall, University of Minnesota professor of art and material culture and author of a forthcoming Edmondson biography stated, “I have learned so much from my nearly ten years of work studying Edmondson’s output in stone. I see significant theorizations of what Sylvia Wynter would call the practice of being human: the sculptor’s unique material inquiry into race, aesthetics, freedom and history.” The full-color plates of the catalogue fully illustrate the immensity of the Barnes exhibition, which brought together more than 60 Edmondson’s sculptures. This rare array showcases the full range of the artist’s skill, humor, and imagination. Through direct engagement with the works, Edmondson is revealed as a relatable human and thoughtful maker; who has place and purpose beyond the myths that surround him. The works are presented on large platforms, where they can be viewed in the round, and in relation to each other, just as one might have encountered them in Edmondson’s yard. The experience reveals Edmondson’s love of texture, his growth in skill over time, and the unique characteristics of his gestural style of carving. By engaging with the artist’s work on its own terms, the catalogue that invites the public to consider Edmondson as a full person—entrepreneurial, spiritual, and culturally engaged.
Today, Edmondson’s continued legacy almost completely relies on the generosity and ethics of private collectors and cultural institutions. Edmondson never married, had no children, and the nieces and nephews that he helped to raise do not own or steward any of his sculptures. There is no estate for the artist, and the lapses in recordkeeping make it difficult to capture the dates, titles, and provenance of the remaining works. Although Edmondson spent the last 15 years of his life cutting tombstones, when he died in 1951 there was no marker made for himself. A fire at Greenwood Cemetery (formally Mt. Ararat) destroyed the record of his burial location, leaving Edmondson lost in an unmarked grave. His land was sold shortly after his death, and his house razed for the construction of a school. Continued scholarship is critical to preserve what memories of the man and his sculptures remain in Edmondson’s Nashville community. It also takes tremendous resources and support to mount an exhibition as large and comprehensive as A Monumental Vision. An exhibition of comparable size may not be seen for decades to come.
The community organization Friends of William Edmondson: Homesite, Park, and Gardens continues their years-long fight to defend the site of Edmondson’s house and yard from encroaching developers. The urgency of this project is exacerbated as a now desegregated Edgehill neighborhood, which still maintains a majority Black population, is rapidly gentrifying.
Friends of William Edmondson seeks to preserve what remains of Edmondson’s lots, demolish the abandoned school building, to build a new public library, a cultural arts center, and a historic interpretive plaza on the site of his former home. The open greenspace has held a longstanding community garden, which would be preserved and expanded with the planting of new greenery for surrounding neighbors to freely forage. In addition to the structure, the organization intends to activate the space by hosting an annual art festival in Edmondson’s honor. The William Edmondson Arts & Culture Festival was officially established in 2022, the 2nd annual festival will occur in Nashville, TN on October 28, 2023. Edmondson historian, festival organizer, and preservationist Mark Schlicher is currently working on a documentary project on Edmondson’s life and sculpting career. Schlicher has done extensive research in the Edgehill Neighborhood, most invaluable, his collection of local oral histories. When speaking on the urgency of the homesite project he said, “Apart from the sculptures themselves, the only tangible evidence of Edmondson’s time on earth are a pair of oak trees at his former homesite in Nashville, likely planted by his own hands in the 1920s. One hundred years later, squirrels—descendants of those he lovingly sculpted—still scamper through those trees and the open greenspace where William lived and created his sculptures.”
TK Smith is assistant curator, Art of the African Diaspora, at the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia.