Larger Type
Smaller Type

Search Collections

William Edmondson

Also Known as: Will Edmondson

Born:
Nashville, Tennessee 1874

Died:
Nashville, Tennessee 1951

Biography

William Edmondson, son of Tennessee slaves, did not consider himself an artist when he began carving around 1932, after retiring from his job as a laborer. Inspired by a vision, he emphasized his divine calling, claiming, "Jesus has planted the seed of carving in me" and describing his works as "mirkels." Edmondson carved gravestones, free-standing figurative sculpture, and garden ornaments, using discarded blocks of limestone and chisels fashioned from railroad spikes. Animals, biblical subjects, and secular figures like Eleanor Roosevelt and Nashville school teachers dominated his repertoire.

In several sculptures entitled Crucifixion, Edmondson celebrated Christ as the Savior, the most popular figure in the spiritual tradition of African-American art. The museum's example [SAAM, 1981.141] is an early version, once also called Baby Jesus. Its rectangular silhouette and upright frontality suggest the gravestone tablets that Edmondson saw in his original vision. Crucifixion retains a strong sense of the block's shape and texture in its minimally articulated form and detail. Only the emphatic curves of the lower torso reveal Edmondson's attempt to break away from the block, suggesting that he executed Crucifixion soon after he turned from carving gravestones to more imaginative, free-standing subjects. Compact and stylized, the sculpture conveys its spiritual message with the authority and immediacy of an archaic monument.

Edmondson's work coincided with the revival of direct carving in stone during the 1930s. Unaware of this development, he relied on divine calling and instruction, affirming his ties with other African Americans whose spirituality has provided the impetus for their art, music, and literature.

Lynda Roscoe Hartigan African-American Art: 19th and 20th-Century Selections (brochure. Washington, D.C.: National Museum of American Art)

Additional Biographies

Tennessee native William Edmondson held a number of jobs, including janitor, fireman, and hospital orderly, before he experienced a holy vision that inspired him to begin carving. At home, surrounded by pieces of stone, he heard a voice telling him to take his tools and "cut figures." When he looked up, Edmondson later recalled, he saw a tombstone hanging in midair and took this as a sign to carve tombstones for Nashville's black community. His repertoire eventually included birdbaths, flowerpots, and human and animal figures. Edmonson kept his finished pieces in his yard, where they attracted the attention of a literary circle from nearby Vanderbilt University. His association with this group eventually led to an exhibition of Edmondson's work at the Museum of Modern Art, in New York, the first African American artist to be featured in a solo exhibition at the museum. Edmondson carved limestone, delivered directly to his backyard by local wrecking companies, with chisels that he fashioned from railroad spikes. He worked up until a year before his death when the heavy work of stone carving became too difficult.

Works in the collection by
William Edmondson

Host an Event in the Courtyard