William Edmondson

In my hometown of Nashville, Tennessee there lived a man who became one of the most well known artists in the art world, if not the world-at-large, his name is William Edmondson.

Born in 1874 to parents who were once slaves in the American South. Edmondson grew up in the Southern historical context of the racist and dehumanizing Jim Crow era. When Edmondson died in 1951, he was not known as famously as he would become later, but his stone sculptures of memorials for friends, numerous animals from life and mythology, and people from his neighborhood, were known and collected by some.

Edmondson at home in Nashville. The three birds were carved by him; a tombstone for a neighbor. Note the echo of the bird’s head in the cloud. Photo by Louise Dahl-Wolfe 1937. All photos courtesy of Cheekwood Museum of Art, Nashville, TN and The Center for Creative PhotographyArizona Board of Regents.   

During his lifetime, three well known photographers came to Nashville specifically to meet him and see his sculptures. They were Edward Weston who visited in 1941, Louise Dahl-Wolfe in 1937, and Consuelo Kanaga in 1950. First Dahl-Wolfe visited and through her connections, Edmondson became the first African American artist to have a one-man exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1937.

Edmondson’s astonishing number of hand-carved stone sculptures in his backyard. Photo by Consuelo Kanaga 1950. 

Alfred Barr, the first director of MoMA sanctioned this event. Modern artists from the beginning were following artists who were “folk” or “self-taught.” Self-taught artists had no formal training in school for the arts. The “modern” artists admired the self-taught artists for their spontaneity, creativity, and most of all, the uninhibited forms of their artworks.

A page from The Art of William Edmondson.  Note the sideways use of hammer on customized railroad spike.  Dahl-Wolfe photos of Edmondson’s backyard filled with magnificent sculptures. 

During the tumultuous beginnings of postmodernism, the now defunct Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC organized Black Folk Art in America 1930-1980 which definitively brought black voices into the art world conversation. Two superstars emerged from the exhibition — Bill Traylor and William Edmondson. Now, Edmondson was clearly on the national art stage and remains there today.

In the late 1990s, I curated for Cheekwood Museum of Art, Nashville, TN, a large traveling retrospective and exhibition catalog. On the cover, Edmondson posed sitting next to his Noah’s Ark.  Photo by Louise Dahl-Wolfe.