The Sculpture of William Edmondson: Tombstones, Garden Ornaments, and Stonework
Cheekwood Estate & Gardens
Fisk University Art Galleries
August 12 – October 31, 2021
William Edmondson (1874-1951) was the most notable sculptor active in Nashville during the 1930s and 40s, and today he remains one of the most important folk or self-taught American artists of the twentieth century. In 1937, he became the first Black artist to receive a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which helped Edmondson gain national and international prominence for his limestone carvings. He also attracted significant local attention from neighbors, collectors, and noted intellectuals and creatives, including photographers like Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Edward Weston, and Consuelo Kanaga. These individuals came from across Nashville and from around the country to see Edmondson at work on his property in the city’s Edgehill neighborhood, just east of Peabody College (now part of Vanderbilt University). Edmondson’s life in Nashville directly shaped the form and content of his work, but its reach and impact extended far beyond the limits of the city he called home.
The Sculpture of William Edmondson: Tombstones, Garden Ornaments, and Stonework draws on new scholarship and methodologies to contextualize Edmondson’s carvings, both within the histories of Nashville during the Interwar years and the history of modern art in the United States. Edmondson has largely been confined to narratives that focus on his supposed artistic discovery by white patrons in the 1930s; his work’s formal resonance with so-called primitivism and direct carving techniques; and his place in the traditions of Black “outsider” art in the United States. This exhibition revisits Edmondson’s work within these frameworks, but also reconsiders his work on its own terms and as part of a comprehensive practice that included the creation of commercial objects rather than strictly fine art. Edmondson’s carvings were intended to be seen and used by the public, in everyday spaces and places. The exhibition’s title references this aspect of Edmondson’s practice, and more specifically, the sign that hung outside his studio, advertising what was for sale and on view in his yard, including tombstones, birdbaths, and statuary.
Cheekwood Estate & Gardens is the greatest single repository of sculptures by Edmondson and related works, including a substantial collection of photographs of the artist and his work gifted by Dahl-Wolfe. The Sculpture of William Edmondson is the first large-scale museum examination of the artist’s career in over twenty years. The exhibition offers an opportunity to highlight and reevaluate Cheekwood’s significant holdings, while more fully contextualizing his practice by placing it alongside notable loans from private and public collections. Additionally, Cheekwood’s collection of Edmondson and Edmondson-related work are now accessible digitally, for the first time in the institution’s history, through a new online collection resource. The exhibition is also accompanied by a richly illustrated catalogue, published by Vanderbilt University Press, which features new scholarship by Renée Ater, Kéla Jackson, Ellen Macfarlane, Anne Monahan, and Learotha Williams. Of particularly note is an essay written by Nashville historian, Betsy Phillips, on the tombstones carved by Edmondson in Nashville cemeteries—marking the first time such a list has been compiled and published.
The Sculpture of William Edmondson: Tombstones, Garden Ornaments, and Stonework will be on view at both Cheekwood and the Fisk University Art Galleries. This concurrent presentation helps more fully contextualize Edmondson’s work across Nashville during a particularly rich moment in the city’s cultural history, which also included an exhibition of his work at Fisk University in 1948, presented as part of its annual Spring Arts Festival. The two-venue presentation, however, also speaks to the underlying goals of this exhibition: to make Cheekwood’s tremendous collection of Edmondson and Edmondson-related works more widely and easily accessible for all.
The Sculpture of William Edmondson: Tombstones, Garden Ornaments, and Stonework supported by
Additional support provided by
William Edmondson, Sculptor, Nashville, Tennessee, 1937. Gelatin silver print. Gift of the Artist. 1964.3.1. © Center for Creative Photography, Arizona Board of Regents / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona: Louis-Dahl-Wolfe, Archive/ Gift of the Louise Dahl-Wolfe Trust
William Edmondson (American, 1874-1951). Birdbath, 1938. Limestone. Gift of Sophia Ezzell Dobson. 1994.20a-d. Photo: © Eric Wheeler, 2021
William Edmondson, (American, 1874-1951). Barbara Kinnard Tombstone, 1940. Limestone. Mount Pisgah Cemetery. Photo courtesy of Marin R. Sullivan.
Pamphlet for the Fisk University Spring Arts Festival, 1948. Courtesy of Fisk University, John Hope and Aurelia E. Franklin Library, Special Collections and Archives.