Also Known as: Will Edmondson
Nashville, Tennessee 1874
Nashville, Tennessee 1951
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)