William Edmondson’s 1937 exhibition at the New York institution was historic, cementing his important place in the history of American art. It was overseen by MoMA’s first director, Alfred Barr, who commented: ‘Usually the naïve artist works in the easier medium of painting. Edmondson, however, has chosen to work in limestone, which he attacks with extraordinary courage and directness to carve out simple, emphatic forms.’
Edmondson’s parents were Orange and Jane Brown Edmondson. Liberated from the Compton plantations, they married shortly after the abolition of slavery in 1865. William Edmondson’s exact date of birth is unknown, having been recorded in a family Bible that was destroyed by a fire, though it is thought to have been sometime in December 1874.
Edmondson’s father died when he was young, in around 1889, and he and his mother and six siblings moved to Nashville. The family had little money, and Edmondson, who had no formal education, worked from the age of 16 — first as a farm hand, then as a manual labourer and railroad worker, until injury forced him to stop.
In 1909, Edmondson took a job as a janitor at the city’s all-white Women’s Hospital, where he worked for 25 years, earning enough money to buy a modest house in the segregated Edgehill neighbourhood. When the Great Depression struck the hospital closed, and Edmondson found himself without work. Desperate for money, he sold fruit from the trees in his garden and took odd jobs — one as an assistant to a stonemason, who taught him to carve limestone.
Edmondson’s decision to start making sculpture is said to have followed a religious vision, in which God told him to take up tools and work on his behalf. In the press release for his 1937 MoMA exhibition, he described the resulting forms as ‘miracles’, and the ‘word [of] Jesus speaking his mind in my mind’.
Edmondson was a member of the United Primitive Baptist Church, and his sculpture was strongly influenced by fundamentalist ideals. His earliest works were tombstones, sold to members of the local congregation, followed by angels and biblical figures. Quoted in Smithsonian Magazine in August 1981, Edmondson said: ‘First He told me to make tombstones; then He told me to cut the figures. I do according to the wisdom of God. He gives me the mind and the hand, I suppose, and then I go ahead and carve these things.’
Later, he began to sculpt popular figures including Eleanor Roosevelt, as well as female nudes and animals. A rare Lion, one of only four known lions by the artist and a powerful example of Christian iconography, was offered at Christie’s in January 2017 and sold for $511,500.
With little money for raw materials, Edmondson worked with limestone from unconventional sources — taken from demolished houses and disused kerbstones. He worked with a sledgehammer and improvised tools, including chisels fashioned from railway spikes. His front yard became his workshop and, as news of his work spread through Nashville, city workers began to bring stone to him at no cost.
Edmondson was ‘discovered’ by a neighbour, Sidney Mttron Hirsch, a wealthy writer who had modelled for sculptors including Auguste Rodin and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. Hirsch and his friends Alfred and Elizabeth Starr became enthusiastic supporters of Edmondson’s work, and persuaded Harper’s Bazaar fashion photographer Louise Dahl-Wolfe to visit Edmondson’s home and photograph his work. It was these photographs, later taken to New York, that persuaded Alfred Barr to offer Edmondson a one-man show.
In the 1930s and 40s, Edmondson’s home was a destination for cultural commentators. In 1941, photographer Edward Weston visited, taking a series of portraits of the artist staring powerfully into the lens.
Even when afflicted by poverty, Edmondson remained unmotivated by the prospect of wealth or celebrity. The sums he charged for his headstones were minimal and many remained in his yard, abandoned by poor neighbours who had commissioned them but could not afford to pay for them. Except for a short trip to Memphis, he never left Nashville, and appeared unmoved by the brief furore that followed his MoMA show — a response that suited the media, which seemed content to cast him as ignorant and unsophisticated.
Edmondson knowingly played along with the persona he was given. Commenting on his practice in an interview in 1941, he said: ‘I is just doing the Lord’s work… I didn’t know I was no artist till them folks come tole me I was.’ Criticism also had little impact on him. As the introduction to his MoMA show stated: ‘He is pleased at praise, but as far as his work is concerned you can take it or leave it.’
In 2016, William Edmondson’s powerful sculpture Boxer established new world records for the artist and for any work of Outsider art when it sold at Christie’s for $785,000. The figure is likely to have been modelled on African American boxer Joe Louis, who was instrumental in eroding racial boundaries in the sport, and who was World Heavyweight Champion from 1937 to 1949. Boxer far outstripped Edmondson’s previous record of $263,000, set in 2014 for the work Mother and Child. Despite being the subject of a MoMA show, Edmondson’s work failed to command significant sums during the course of his lifetime.