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
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. …