Edmondson’s Critter, an active animal complete with cocked ears, choppily-rendered fur and clawed, gripping feet, is an architectural sculpture as well as a figurative one. His bifurcated tail cuts negative space into interesting contours and shapes. The upturned rear of the base is a structural reality of the repurposed limestone but also makes the form active – literally lifting the critter’s tail off the ground.
William Edmondson (1874-1951) was born on a farm near Nashville, Tennessee, and moved with his family to Nashville proper around 1890. He held two jobs for much of his adult life: from 1900 to 1907 he worked for the Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railway, and from around 1907 to 1931 he served as a janitor at the Nashville Woman’s Hospital. While he did not come to artmaking until his late fifties, Edmondson had long dabbled in stonemasonry. His first foray possibly occurred in the late 1890s, when he likely worked on the construction of stone fences at Whitland Farm in present-day southwest Nashville. He was employed again as a stonemason during the early years of the Great Depression. After losing his job at the Woman’s Hospital in the early 1930s, Edmondson established a stonecutting business next to his home to create tombstones for his community; he also carved freestanding sculptures of religious figures, famous and local people, and various animals, and displayed them around his yard. The patina on Critter reveals its life outdoors. The darkened limestone speaks to Edmondson’s outdoor placement of his “garden ornaments” and to the work’s life after it left his custody.
Edmondson’s yard attracted attention from art lovers. In 1936 Vanderbilt University affiliate Sidney Hirsch came across Edmondson’s work, and he introduced his friends Alfred and Elisabeth Starr to the artist. The Starrs in turn brought Harper’s Bazaar photographer Louise Dahl-Wolfe to the yard, and she photographed the artist and his work multiple times in 1936 and/or 1937. After seeing the Dahl-Wolfe photographs, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., then-director of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, authorized a 1937 exhibition of works by the sculptor, making Edmondson the first African American to have a solo exhibition at MoMA. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s Edmondson’s home remained a destination, drawing visitors such as famed photographer Edward Weston.
Critter was purchased directly from Edmondson by Elizabeth Kortlander, then a young girl who visited the artist in his yard in the 1940s. She kept the work outdoors as he had. Photographed by researcher and collector Edmund Fuller in the early 1970s, Critter has been recognized and appreciated by Edmondson scholars for decades, but the work remained in the Kortlander family until now.