Carving charisma

First African-American to solo at MOMA featured at High's downtown gallery

For most of us, leaving home is a rite of passage, a necessary transition to adulthood and the only way we can gain the education and exposure we need to "make it." The late self-taught artist William Edmondson proved quite the opposite. His story, told in The Art of William Edmondson at the High Museum of Art Folk Art & Photography Galleries, illustrates how, in this fast-moving, far-flung world, there's meaning and fulfillment to be found quite close by.
Edmondson's life began in 1874 on a former plantation in southwestern Davidson County in Tennessee, and ended in 1951, less than three miles away, in Nashville. When a spiritual vision in 1933 led him to begin sculpting tombstones, he gathered discarded stones from the streets and fields and used old railroad spikes and a hammer to chisel a series of simple rectangles. He figured out how to add decorative relief along with lettering to the stones and began to sculpt birdbaths, birds and animals. Eventually, his yard became a world inhabited by a myriad of limestone forms that he constantly rearranged.
In 1935, Edmondson's magical environment was discovered by a Harper's Bazaar fashion photographer, Louise Dahl-Wolfe. Magazine owner William Randolph Hearst wouldn't allow a black artist's work to appear in the publication at the time, so Dahl-Wolfe took photographs of the artist and his sculptures to Alfred Barr, then director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Barr arranged for Edmondson's one-man museum show in 1937, the first for an African-American artist.
Dahl-Wolfe's photographs, along with those of renowned artist Edward Weston and Consuelo Kanaga, accompany the sculptures in this exhibition. The photographers that captured the spirit of the carver and his creative process often were drawn to his pensive visage and sensitive, slim-fingered hands.
Edmondson's subjects depict his influences — a deep spirituality, his community, African-American folklore and popular culture. The artist often spoke of allowing forms to emerge from the stones by setting free their spirits. His philosophy parallels that of stone sculptors ranging from Michelangelo to first generation Zimbabwean Shona sculptors.
Certain aspects of his sculptures connect Edmondson with the late Nellie Mae Rowe, whose work was featured in the High Museum's downtown space last year. His sphinx-like "Talking Owl" fuses animal and human form. There are two galleries of creatures — turtles, rabbits, eagles, rams, horses and a bear/possum that the artist called "Critter."
Though he never married, the artist was surrounded and influenced by women. He carved many female figures, including "Girl With Cape," "Bride," a schoolteacher, a nurse. His small statue of Eleanor Roosevelt features the late first lady with a high-collared coat and hair that cascades down her back all the way to her feet. There's an "Eve," whose form evokes the work of Fernand Leger. The most practical of his biblical references to woman is the delightful "Angel With a Pocketbook."
One Weston portrait portrays Edmondson's realm as poignant theater. A white curtain pulled up and back reveals the artist seated beside a few rectangles of stone, crumbled stone at his feet. His noble demeanor belies his tattered clothes and shoes worn completely through at the toes. Those metaphoric shoes speak volumes about a man who went a long way, without straying far from home.
The Art of William Edmondson continues through May 19. High Museum Folk Art and Photography Galleries, 30 John Wesley Dobbs Ave. 404-577-6940.