How a self-taught sculptor became the 1st African American to have a solo exhibition at the prestigious Museum of Modern Art

Stephen Nartey January 11, 2023
Willaim Edmondson/Photo credit: WPLN News

American sculptor William Edmondson developed a love for sculpting when he was an apprentice under a stonemason. He self-trained himself to become one of the most celebrated artists of his lifetime. He used leftover stones and basic tools to craft his work of art. He worked on tombstones and yard ornaments which he sold.

With regular practice and consistency, he began cutting and carving rectangular and three-dimensional forms and inscribing his own words on the text. He became noted for his grave markers, birdbaths, animal forms, and sculpture of people he knew or admired.

The son of freed slaves, Edmondson became the first African American to conduct a solo exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1937. He started operating his own business in 1932. He indicated that he drew inspiration from divine guidance and never claimed personal credit for his work.

Art curators and historians have praised the originality of Edmondson’s work, likening him to modern artists. His work was celebrated for the subtle and deep poetic themes it carried. He was acknowledged by the southern Black community and art lovers in New York.

Edmondson is reported to have said that his work was in praise of the Lord’s work. He said he didn’t consider himself an artist until people said so. He said his carvings were sermons he received through vision.

It is unclear when Edmondson was born but it is believed he was birthed around 1882. A fire outbreak is said to have destroyed the family Bible that had his exact date of birth. His parents were George and Jane Edmondson of Nashville.

Edmondson was engaged in several menial jobs during his formative years. He was employed as an orderly at the Baptist Hospital in Nashville. He lived most of his life alone and was unmarried. He grew vegetables for sale at some point in his life for survival.

He turned his household into a workshop where he carved his limestones. His work was brought to the attention of the public through the efforts of New York photographer Louise Dahl-Wolfe, who saw his works while visiting friends in Nashville in 1836. It was Dahl-Wolfe who showed the works of Edmondson to the director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Alfred Barr.

Barr was enthused with Edmondson’s work and arranged an exhibition for the artist the following year. The museum exhibited ten of Edmondson’s sculptures, becoming the first African-American artist to have a solo exhibition there. Edmondson was also featured in a 1944 exhibition, “American Negro Art: Contemporary Painting and Sculpture,” at the Newark Museum in New Jersey.

His art career lasted for about 17 years. In 1947, Edmondson began experiencing ill health. He was diagnosed with cancer, which dissipated his energy to allow him to work on his sculptures.

He passed away on February 8, 1951. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Mount Ararat Cemetery on the outskirts of Nashville.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: January 11, 2023


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