Art of William Edmondson, New Documentary

One of the largest collections of William Edmondson‘s art is at Cheekwood Estate & Gardens in Nashville, and last month filmmaker Mark Schlicher spoke there about the artist and the fundraising he’s doing to finish his documentary entitled “Chipping Away: The Life and Legacy of Sculptor William Edmondson” that he’s devoted work to over five years. (Trailer below)

William was born to Orange and Jane Brown Edmondson sometime in the 1870s — perhaps December 1874 — in Tennessee, and was born and died within a three-mile area. His parents were freed slaves who had been at the Compton Plantation (now Green Hills) in Davidson County, continuing to work there after emancipation as sharecroppers.

William moved into the city of Nashville when he got older, and suffered a leg injury from a railroad job. Unemployed, he started making tombstones for sale using old railroad spikes and hammers to make shapes.

Smithsonian Magazine August 1981 published a quote from him about the inspiration:

‘First He told me to make tombstones; then He told me to cut the figures. I do according to the wisdom of G-d. He gives me the mind and the hand, I suppose, and then I go ahead and carve these things.’ 

In 2011, I visited Mount Ararat cemetery in Nashville, though it’s known that very unfortunately all of Edmondson’s work is no longer extant there. Further, it’s no longer known where in the cemetery he is buried. Nashville dedicated a park in Edmondson’s honor a few years ago and commissioned Thornton Dial and Lonnie Holley for sculptures.

In 1935, Sidney Hirsch, an art faculty member at George Peabody College for Teachers found Edmondson’s place and was intrigued, telling his friend Louise Dahl-Wolfe about it. She worked for Harper’s Bazaar and thought it worthy of a feature, but William Randolph Hearst did not want to feature it in the magazine. She showed pictures of the work to Alfred H. Barr Jr., director of MoMA, and William Edmondson became the first African American artist to have a solo show there, in 1937.

Besides angels and animals (one of his lions was sold by Christie’s in January 2017 at $511,500), he began to sculpt famous people like Eleanor Roosevelt. He even sculpted Sidney Hirsch at one point, and that piece is in the collection at Cheekwood. Note: though Cheekwood has many pieces of Edmondson’s art, they don’t keep it on permanent exhibit. Their current exhibit calendar is here.

Above, one of Edmondson’s eagles I photographed in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. The last time I visited the Edmondson exhibit at Cheekwood — which was a few years ago — they did not allow photography. 

As an aside, Sidney Hirsch himself was a renaissance man in his own right: he was a  model for Auguste Rodin (!) and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. He served in the Navy. He studied ancient languages. He was a member of Vanderbilt’s Fugitives group of poets and other creatives (Robert Penn Warren was one member), and he was a playwright with varying degrees of success.

Edmondson achieved a certain amount of celebrity after the MoMA show, but had little interest in it, and cared less about the positive or negative criticism of his work. During his lifetime, the art never commanded appropriate market prices.

His ‘Boxer’ c. 1936 set a new world record for his work and for Outsider art when it sold for $785k in 2016 at Christie’s.

“Chipping Away: The Life and Legacy of Sculptor William Edmondson” is slated for a Spring 2018 release, fundraising to complete it here: