The Impact of William Edmondson

visions from above at cheekwood william edmondson

“Except for a trip to Memphis, he never left Nashville.”

William Edmondson was born in Davidson County, Tennessee. He died and laid to rest three miles away from the place he was born. Edmondson did not move. But Edmondson made things that moved.

William Edmondson was a prolific sculptor in the 1930s and 1940s. He began by making gravestones but quickly expanded his practice to include stand-alone works that he summoned from stone – angels, boxers, horses, church ladies, birds and rams. In histories of folk art, Edmondson holds forefather status. He is best known as the first black artist to have a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York.

Location was everything to Edmondson. When the artist moved into Nashville proper, in the now Edgehill Village area, he had a house at 1434 14th Avenue South. His house was very close to Peabody College. Edmondson sculpted in a workshop in his backyard. Peabody professor Sidney Hirsch often walked past Edmondson’s home, due to its proximity to the college. Hirsch admired his work. Hirsch then introduced Edmondson to Alfred and Elizabeth Starr. The Starrs were well-connected art lovers and harped about his work to their friend Louise Dahl-Wolfe, a New York photographer for Harper’s Bazaar. Dahl-Wolfe purchased works and took images of the artist.

It was Dahl-Wolfe that shared Edmondson’s work to her friends in the New York, including those at MoMA. Alfred Barr, Jr., MoMA’s director at the time of his 1937 show, said that Edmondson sculpted “with extraordinary courage and directness to carve out simple, emphatic forms. The spirit of his work does not betray the inspiration which he believes to be his active guide.”

“I was out in the driveway with some old pieces of stone when I heard a voice telling me to pick up my tools and start to work on a tombstone. I looked up in the sky and right there in the noon day light He hung a tombstone out for me to make.” 

Edmonson said, “I am just doing the Lord’s work. I ain’t got much style; God don’t want much style, but He gives wisdom and sends you along.” Truly Edmondson drew his subjects from his world, both real and imagined.

In 1938, MoMA included one of his Mary and Martha pieces in its exhibition Three Centuries of American Art seen at the Jeu de Paume in Paris, France. These back-to-back exhibitions highlighted Edmondson’s status as one of America’s most important “outsider” artists. Edmondson had no aspirations to become an artist and did not have any formal artistic education. However, it was his lack of training that appealed to the American Scene movement in the 1930s and 1940s, which valued vernacular art production that was uniquely American. His work was celebrated at MOMA as evidence of the primitive roots of modern American art.

Major pieces now reside in public collections around the United States, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Newark Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Art Institute of Chicago, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and, of course, Cheekwood being the largest repository of his work.

Cheekwood is very honored to have such a large collection of Edmondson’s work with 22 works. We also have a selection of photographs taken by Dahl-Wolfe used to lure her New York friends. Cheekwood Museum of Art’s collecting history is deeply connected to Edmondson’s work. Edmondson, like Cheekwood, never left Nashville and yet has had national and global preeminence. Both have had to settle so that its reach can go global.

Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Edmondson with Schoolteacher, n.d. Silver print. Gift of the artist. 1964.3.2. (right)

William Edmondson, Schoolteacher, c. 1937. Limestone. Gift of John Thompson Jr. 1960.1. David Almeida Photography. (left) 


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