The exact date of William Edmondson‘s birth isn’t known – the family Bible in which his birth year was written was destroyed by fire. But in approximately 1874, William Edmondson was born to Orange and Jane Brown Edmondson, former slaves working as sharecroppers on a plantation in rural Davidson County, Tennessee. One of six children, William spent his youth working in the corn fields, seeing “angels in the clouds” and believing God spoke to him. He had little formal education. His description of one such vision was transcribed in the Museum of Modern Art’s 1937 press release:
“I had a vision. Yes, sir, I wuz jus’ a little boy ’bout 13, 14 years old, doin’ in de corn fields. I saw in de east world, I saw in de west world, I saw de flood. I ain’t never read no books nor no Bible and I saw de water come. It come up over de rocks, covered up de rocks and went over de mountains. God, he jus’ showed me how.”
When his father died in late 1889, 16-year-old Edmondson refused to continue to tirelessly work on the plantation and relocated to Nashville for work. After working odd jobs and in the railroad industry, Edmondson took a job as a hospital orderly at the city’s all-white Women’s Hospital, where he worked for 25 years, earning enough money to buy a modest house. When the Great Depression struck the hospital closed, and Edmondson found himself without work. Desperate for money, he sold fruit from the trees in his garden and took odd jobs — one as an assistant to a stonemason, who taught him to carve limestone.
In 1934, at about 60 years old, William Edmondson experienced a transformational religious conversion. He said he was called to preach and cut tombstones to God’s command. He attended the United Primitive Baptist Church in Nashville, and remained dedicated to his religion during the years following his conversion. Edmondson stated that God first appeared to him in a vision and commanded him to carve tombstones:
“I looked up in the sky and right there in the noon daylight He hung a tombstone out for me to make.”
Edmondson said the visions showed him tombstones and other shapes to carve as clearly as most people see clouds.
With little money for raw materials, Edmondson worked with limestone from unconventional sources — taken from demolished houses and disused kerbstones. He worked with a sledgehammer and improvised tools, including chisels fashioned from railway spikes. His front yard became his workshop and, as news of his work spread through Nashville, city workers began to bring stone to him at no cost. He began by making tombstones for people in his Nashville African-American community before expanding to carve animals and people, almost always with biblical significance. In a Time magazine article of November 1, 1937, Edmondson was quoted as follows:
“This here stone n’all those out there in the yard—came from God. It’s the work of Jesus speaking his mind in my mind. I must be one of His ‘ciples. These here is mirkels I can do. Can’t nobody do these but me. I can’t help carving I just does it. …
Jesus has planted the seed of carving in me.”
Throughout the 1930s and 40s, Edmondson’s home was a destination for cultural commentators. Peabody College professor and poet Sidney Hirsch “discovered” William Edmondson from his frequent walks past Edmondson’s house on the way to work. According to Edmondson biographer Elizabeth Spires, Hirsch started a chain reaction that raised the artist’s profile very quickly when he introduced the him to Alfred and Elizabeth Starr. The Starrs were well-connected art lovers, and they evangelized about Edmonson’s work to their friend Louise Dahl-Wolfe, a photographer for Harper’s Bazaar in New York. Dahl-Wolfe purchased some pieces and took several now-famous photos of Edmondson. It was these photographs, later taken to New York, that persuaded Alfred Barr, director of the Museum of Modern Art, to offer Edmondson a one-man show.
In late 1937 the Museum of Modern Art mounted ten of Edmondson’s sculptures. He is the first African-American artist to have a solo exhibition there.
In 1938, through MoMA’s influence, William Edmondson’s sculpture was included in the “Three Centuries of Art in the United States” in Paris. Interest in his work on the national and international stage was short-lived, and he was viewed primarily as a novelty, or exemplar of the “primitive” race-memory of an untutored, naïve old African American stone carver. Locally, Alfred Starr continued to promote Edmondson’s work to his artistic friends and acquaintances, who bought work directly from Edmondson’s “sculpture yard” or through the local Lyzon Gallery. Starr introduced the famed modernist photographer Edward Weston to Edmondson in 1941, and Weston made several striking photographs of Edmondson at work in his shop and yard. Also in 1941, he received the only other solo show accorded during his lifetime, at the Nashville Art Gallery.
“I was just doing the Lord’s work,” he said in one interview. “I didn’t know I was no artist until them folks come and told me I was.”
In fact, in every existing interview with Edmondson, he consistently credited God for his creative inspiration, and he never referred to himself as an artist.
In 1939 and again in 1941, Edmondson worked under the Works Progress Administration, a government-sponsored relief program that included artists. In the late 1940s, his health began to fail and his artistic production slowed. By 1947 Edmondson’s health had begun to fail. He was stricken with cancer, which left him with scarcely enough energy to lift his tools. During the last few years of his life, he worked primarily with small blocks of limestone, and occasionally chiseled inscriptions on tombstones commissioned by members of his church. He died on February 8, 1951, and was buried in Mount Ararat Cemetery, the first African-American cemetery in Middle Tennessee. Cemetery records for Mount Ararat were subsequently destroyed by fire, and the exact location of Edmondson’s grave is unknown. It is ironic that a man devoted to carving tombstones does not have one identifying his own grave. He is believed to have created about 300 works during his working lifetime.
Most of Edmondson’s sculptures are symbolic and were inspired by biblical passages. The frequent misspellings and omissions on his crudely lettered tombstones make evident the fact that Edmondson was barely literate. His minimalist works usually retained some impression of their original rectangular form of the original limestone blocks and offered more of a suggestion of an actual figure—doves, lambs, preachers, angels, biblical figures, imaginary characters—than an exact rendering of it. Edmondson’s figure style is extremely simple— human faces are frequently curved forms with a few simple indentations denoting features. Feet are often without toes, arms without wrists, and legs without ankles. Textures are usually articulated in the hair of humans and fur of animals. Anatomical proportions are distorted in a manner that lends a vigorous and expressive effect to the pieces.
Edmondson’s work has been critically acclaimed for its powerful visual economy, lively narrative quality, and rich spiritual symbolism. Some critics demand his overdue acceptance into the canon of American Modern Art, while others place his oeuvre in the complex cultural traditions of the African Diaspora in the Americas. In 2016, Edmondson’s sculpture, Boxer, established new world records for the artist and for any work of Outsider art when it sold at Christie’s for $785,000. The figure is likely to have been modelled on African American boxer Joe Louis, who was instrumental in eroding racial boundaries in the sport, and who was World Heavyweight Champion from 1937 to 1949. All debate aside, Edmondson continues to be recognized as one of the most significant Outsider Artists and one of Tennessee’s most acclaimed sculptors.