Last fall, we went in search of William Edmondson works — he was born in the early 1870s to former slaves (‘Edmondson and Compton slaves’ he said) and went on in 1937 to become the first black person to ever have a one-man show at MoMa. He did not attend.
In a press release that year, the Museum stated:
Mr. Edmondson, a Negro of Nashville, Tennessee, has had no art training and very little education. He was a hospital orderly for years and a worker at odd jobs. Four or five years ago he became a tombstone cutter and developed an interest in sculpture, which he claims to fashion at G-d’s command.
Mr. Edmondson’s sculpture comes within the category loosely called “modern primitive.” Alfred H. Barr, Jr., Director of The Museum of Modern Art, says of his work: “Recognition of the achievements of naive or self-taught artists is one of the discoveries of contemporary taste. Usually the naive artist works in the easier medium of painting. Edmondson, however, has chosen to work in limestone, which he attacks with extraordinary courage and directness to carve out simple, emphatic forms. The spirit of his work does not betray the inspiration which he believes to be his active guide.”
There has been significant damage to the monuments at Mount Ararat; none of his stones remain here, either being stolen or donated. I think the top of this stone below is related to some of the more plain monuments he made, but the lettering here is not his, as his letters on monuments are broad outlines. I took pictures of a few more interesting ones overall, no matter if they were Edmondson’s works or not. Edmondson himself is buried in this cemetery, in an unmarked grave.
Edmondson has been quoted:
This here stone and all those out there in the yard come from G-d. It’s the work in Jesus speaking His mind in my mind. I must be one of His disciples. These here is miracles I can do. Can’t nobody do these but me. I can’t help carving. I just does it. It’s like when you’re leaving here you’re going home. Well, I know I’m going to carve. Jesus has planted the seed of carving in me.
This is what some of Edmondson’s monuments looked like.
Edmondson’s ‘fame’ came quickly as it was only in the early ’30s that he picked up his chisel and by ’37 was showing at MoMA.
Cheekwood Art and Gardens in Nashville currently has the largest collection of Edmondson pieces, but when we were there in October, we were told they were out on loan to another institution.
This work of Edmondson’s is on auction now; estimate $20-$30k. The catalog lists it as ‘critter’ but I think it’s one of his rabbits, showing a fair amount of environmental wear.