American, 20th century.
Born 1874, Davidson County, Tennessee; died 1951, Nashville, Tennessee.
William Edmondson was born in 1874, to former slaves working as sharecroppers on a plantation in rural Davidson County. In 1979, the family relocated to Nashville, where Edmondson would eventually work in the railroad industry and, following an injury, as an hospital orderly. With the advent of the Great Depression he became unemployed, and in 1931 experienced a vision in which God commanded him to carve tombstones: "I looked up in the sky and right there in the noon daylight He hung a tombstone out for me to make."
Using a chisel to shape discarded blocks of limestone, Edmondson filled his Nashville yard with pared-down yet lively carvings depicting neighborhood residents, African-American heroes, and Biblical personae, and a range of animals. His prolific output soon drew the admiration of the local Nashville arts community: the poet Sidney Hirsh, the painter Elisabeth Starr and her husband Alfred, and the photographer Louise Dahl-Wolfe, who photographed the artist together with his work, and brought him to the attention of MoMA curator Alfred Barr. In 1937, Edmondson was the first African-American artist to to be honored with a solo exhibition at MoMA. He worked under the auspices of the WPA between 1938-41, and is believed to have produced approximately 300 sculptures. He died in Nashville in 1951.
Edmondson's work has been critically acclaimed for its powerful visual economy, lively narrative quality, and rich spiritual symbolism. Some critics demand his overdue acceptance into the canon of American Modern Art, while others place his oeuvre in the complex cultural traditions of the African Diaspora in the Americas. All debate aside, Edmondson continues to be recognized as one of the most significant Outsider Artists.
- Jenifer P. Borum
2018, Outliers and American Vanguard Art, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
2013, Great and Mighty Things: Outsider Art from the Sheldon and Jill Bonovitz Collection, Philadelphia Museum of Art
2005, Bill Traylor, William Edmondson and the Modernist Impulse, The Studio Museum, Harlem; Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham; The Menil Collection, Houston
2000, William Edmondson, Cheekwood Museum, Nashville
1993, Passionate Visions of the American South, New Orleans Museum of Art, New Orleans
1982, Black Folk Art in America: 1930-1980, Corcoran Gallery, Washington D.C.
1965, Folk Carvings by Will Edmondson, American Folk Art Museum, New York
1937, William Edmondson, Museum of Modern Art, New York
Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center, Williamsburg, VA
Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham, AL
Brooklyn Museum of Art, Brooklyn, NY
Cheekwood Museum of Art, Nashville, TN
Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, OH
Fenimoore House Museum, Cooperstown, NY
High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.
Museum of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN
National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian, Washington, D.C.
Newark Museum, Newark, NJ
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA
Bill Traylor, William Edmondson, and the Modernist Impulse, exhibition catalogue, Josef Helfensfein, Studio Museum, Harlem, 2004.
William Edmondson, exhibition catalogue, Freeman, Farris Thompson, Gundaker, et al., Cheekwood Museum, Nashville, 2000.
Perry, Regenia A., Free Within Ourselves: African-American Artists in the Collection of the National Museum of American Art, Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1992.
Black Folk Art in America 1930-1980, exhibition catalogue, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Center for the Study of Southern Culture & University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, 1982.
Two Centuries of Black American Art, exhibition catalogue, curated by David C. Driskell, Fisk University Art Department, Nashville, 1976.
Fuller, Edmund L., Vision in Stone: The Sculpture of William Edmondson, Pittsburgh: The University of Pittsburgh Press, 1973.
Chipping Away: The Life and Legacy of William Edmondson, a documentary by Mark Schlicher, 2014