Monuments in Limestone the Blocky Figures of Naif Sculptor William Edmondson Are Infused with Dignity and Vivacity

Article excerpt

IN 1938, about five years after William Edmondson, a semiliterate man in a small black community outside Nashville, began carving limestone chunks, the prestigious Museum of Modern Art in New York gave him a one-man show. He was the first black to be so honored.

Edmondson's untaught, artful, instinctively primitive works caused critics to crow over sophisticated contemporary "primitivist" efforts from sculptors who labored long in creative throes to bring forth their simplified forms. One of the critics declared that this naif's blocky figures would "not be out of place with (Constantin) Brancusi," one of the heralds of modernism in sculpture.

Recently, I saw Edmondson's "Sleeping Girl" in the Newark (N.J.) Museum's excellent collection of work by black artists. His sculpture had lost none of its appeal. What struck me was that the piece would also not be out of place among the remarkable sculptures of the early Coptic Christians. To me, Edmondson has more in common with them than with Brancusi.

Edmondson had no art training and seems to have shown no previous inclination to carving. He began sculpting in his 50s, unlike many naifs who have begun their work much earlier in their lives. It is also unusual that he turned to carving; for many primitive artists, paint is the preferred medium.

Egyptian Coptic sculpture was mainly done on the Nile, upstream from the Hellenistic, aristocratic metropolises, in small Christian villages or in monastic communities by local artisans who had no pretensions to high art. It was done for the relatively poor folk of the early Christian churches. The concepts of resurrection and eternal life were central to these Christian worshipers. Death did more than mark the end of life, it marked the beginning of everlasting joy, consequently gravestones were important as elements of devotion and praise, not as status symbols or monuments to grief.

AND so it was with William Edmondson when he had what he was convinced was a vision from God: "I was out in the driveway with some old pieces of stone when I heard a voice telling me to pick up my tools and start to work on a tombstone. I looked up in the sky and right there in the noon daylight He hung a tombstone out for me to make."

A niece related that "everyone just laughed at him. We thought it was the funniest thing." They weren't laughing at his vision, or his religious feeling because religion was deeply ingrained in the whole family. But they laughed at Uncle Bill tapping away at stones from the rubble of old houses.

Like the Coptic artisans, Edmondson worked with soft limestone. His tools were homemade. Railroad spikes served as chisels and a common hammer as a sculptor's mallet. Later on he acquired better instruments. Some of the first carvings, the tombstones, were given away to neighbors, filling a real need. Others he sold for a dollar or two; after a while he would occasionally receive as much as $20. Sometimes his sculptures were exchanged in barter.

Once he began sculpting, Edmondson turned out large numbers of imaginative pieces, no longer confining himself to gravestones. Most of the pieces were small, limited by the size of the available pieces of limestone. But the effect is always monumental - whether a strong-winged but perky bird, an imaginary dragon-like "varmint," a "critter," a preacher, a Biblical character, a woman, or an angel.

Although just under 22 inches high, "Seated Girl" gives an impression of monumentality and, for an untaught naif, is an ambitious work. …