As a living timeline of Edmondson and his legacy, William Edmondson and Friends: Breaking the Mold traces the working history of a self-taught Nashville artist and the national ripples left behind by his lasting impression.
Born the child of freed slaves in 1874, Edmondson started carving his limestone sculptures when he was nearly 60 years old, and in 1937 he became the first African American artist to be given a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
Edmondson’s represented work – spanning early tombstone carvings, his animal and figurative series, and a series of vessels from birdbaths to minimalist carvings of bowls and cups – feels grounded and ponderous, the forms and shapes characterizing the massive nature of stone as a medium. With their surfaces raw with the evidence of work – each piece cut deeply by the chisel, pocked with the labor of hammering intricate details into being – Edmondson’s images, especially his animal forms, have dignity and yet whimsy, their features holding a vivaciousness despite their bulk.
Edmondson’s tombstones were his earliest works, and perhaps the simplest in intent: with their basic forms inscribed with Edmondson’s lovingly awkward lettering and distinctively beautiful numerals, they speak to the passing of a life, borrowing common symbolism from contemporaneous African American cemeteries. However, from these tombstones one can trace aesthetic threads that follow Edmondson throughout his career: the weighty pedestal bases that appear throughout his sculptures; the visual evidence of a labor-intensive process; and the borrowed parables and narratives that Edmondson reinterpreted through his own hand.
Much of Edmondson’s work is described as loaded with personal meaning, and many of his series contain anecdotes about their origins. His figurative sculptures often condense the personalities of personal authority figures – such as teachers, religious figures, and characters such his ex-boss, Miss Wooten – into archetypal constructions whose features and props become universally understood caricatures. Edmondson’s animal forms – which draw not only from his personal recollections of livestock but from animals that appear in biblical references and cultural folktales – are also heavily stylized and many of the sculptor’s unidentified chimeras are obliquely referred to as “critters” or “varmints.” Overall, Edmondson’s oeuvre presents a personal history, preserved and built with a rich structure of archetypal narratives, written in his own folkloric visual vocabulary.
This idea of narrative is a major theme in the “Friends” presented as part of the exhibit. As personal acquaintances, artists who saw or experienced Edmondson’s work, or who work in a similar manner within the Middle Tennessee area, these “Friends” form a contemporary counterpoint to the timeline of Edmondson’s visual legacy. Work from artists such as Thornton Dial and Lonnie Holley visually capture Edmondson’s sense of narrative preservation; Holley, in particular, also makes tombstones as a part of his work, and his visionary sculptural compositions recall Edmondson in their abilities to speak to the individual as well as the universal.
Others lack direct ties to Edmondson or his process, but refer to the indirect ripples left by an artist active within a community. An example of Sylvia Hyman’s ceramic work, which engages vessels and containers, is included as an indirect tie; after moving from New York, Hyman taught at the Peabody School in the same neighborhood where Edmondson had lived. Others, such as Ben Caldwell III, grew up around collections of Edmondson’s work (many of the Edmondson pieces included in the exhibit are from the collection of Dr. and Ms. Benjamin Caldwell); Caldwell’s hammered copper and enamel sculpture, Flag, included in the exhibit, demonstrates the evidence of the physicality of sculptural work-making. Like Edmondson’s sculptures, the work records the energy of the artist’s body during the creative process.
Other “Friends” engage in Edmondson’s direct carving method, respecting the inherent nature of their media and allowing it to speak through a finished form. Meyer Wolfe was an actual friend of Edmondson, and his Untitled sandstone relief portrays the same awareness of stone as a surface and the deeply biting mark-making that we find in Edmondson’s work.
Wolfe also provides the single known sketch of the artist at work, included in a photographic exhibit of the few available images of the sculptor. In one picture Edmondson leans into a chisel, appearing as solid and grounded as the sculptures he created.
William Edmondson and Friends: Breaking the Mold is on view until January 4th, 2015, at the Cheekwood Museum of Art. Learn more at cheekwood.org.