William Edmondson – American Artist

William Edmondson (American, 1882 to 1951)

The artist was born to Orange and Jane Brown Edmondson, former slaves, on a plantation in the Hillsboro Road section of Davidson County, Tennessee. He worked from childhood as a field hand, and, until 1907, when his leg was injured, he was a railroad worker for the Nashville, Chattanooga, and St. Louis Railroad. For the next twenty-five years he was employed by the Women’s Hospital (known also as McGannon Hall and, later, Baptist Hospital), beginning as a janitor in charge of the furnace. He then worked as a porter and assistant stonemason for a local contractor in Nashville until 1931. Retired from that job, he spent much time in his garden, near Vanderbilt University, tending to his vegetables and fruit trees. Edmondson began to carve in 1934. He claimed to have been inspired by a series of visions he experienced in which God ordered him to carve. Between 1939 and 1941, Edmondson worked for the Works Progress Administration, which had a no-racial-discrimination clause. He carved until 1948, and died in 1951 after a long illness. The Nashville Banner carried his obituary, as did the New York Times and Art Digest.

Edmondson’s property was filled with hundreds of his carved tombstones, figurative sculptures, and garden ornaments. He used an old hammer and a railroad spike to chisel mostly limestone blocks from demolished buildings and curbstones. His carvings range in size from 20″ critters to a birdbath 32″ birdbath.

Sydney Hirsch, a professor on the art faculty of George Peabody College for Teachers, discovered Edmondson’s art in 1935 as he walked through the neighborhood. Hirsch took his fashion photographer friend, Louise Dahl-Wolfe, and others to see the artist. Dahl-Wolfe visited Edmondson several times beginning in 1937 but was unable to publish photographs of Edmondson’s work in the William Randolph Hearst-owned Harper’s Bazaar, where she worked, because Hearst forbade “negros” in his publications. Dahl-Wolfe directed the photographs instead to Alfred H. Barr, the visionary director of the Museum of Modern Art. Impressed, Barr arranged the exhibition for the museum. (Dahl-Wolfe purchased this Angel from the artist in 1937 as a gift to her friends and neighbors Janet Chase and Fred Hauck, grandparents of the present owner.)

Edmondson received recognition during his lifetime. Besides Dahl-Wolfe, the photographers Edward Weston and Consuelo Kanaga were interested in him, and photographed the artist and his carvings. Following the Museum of Modern Art exhibition, Edmondson was represented in “Three Centuries of Art in the United States” (1938) at the Musee du Jeu de Paume, in Paris. In 1948, Charles Johnson, the first black president of Fisk University, chaired a symposium that was accompanied by the exhibition “Stone Carvings by William Edmondson.” Members of Edmondson’s community, including those from the Primitive Baptist Church, where he was a member, were in attendance. In 2000 a major exhibition and catalog was organized by the Cheekwood Museum of Art, in Nashville. The exhibition traveled to many venues, including the American Folk Art Museum in New York.


Arnett, Paul and William. Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art of the South. Atlanta: Tinwood Books, 1999.

The Art of William Edmondson. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi in association with Cheekwood Museum of Art, 1999.

Beardsley, John, and Jane Livingston. Black Folk Art in America, 1930-1980. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi in association with Corcoran Gallery of Art, 1982.

Bird, Paul. “The Fortnight in New York.” Art Digest (Nov. 1, 1937): 18. [vol. 13, February 1, 1939, pp. 18-19].

DeCarlo, Tessa. “A Master Sculptor, No Longer A Secret.” New York Times (May 14, 2000), p. 41.

Fuller, Edmund L. Visions in Stone: The Art of William Edmondson. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1973.

“Inspired Self-Taught Artist, William Edmondson Dies.” [Nashville] Tennessean (February 9, 1951), pp. 1, 6.

Lindsey, Jack. Miracles: The Sculptures of William Edmondson. Philadelphia: Janet Fleisher Gallery, 1994.

“William Edmondson.” Folk Art 20, no. 1 (Spring 1995): 43-47.

Lowe, Harry, Carl Zibart, and Walter Sharp. Will Edmondson’s Mirkels. Nashville: Tennessee Fine Arts Center atCheekwood, 1964.

“Mirkels.” Time. (November 1, 1937).

The New Yorker (November 6, 1937).

“Sculpture in the Modern Carving Tradition by a Tombstone Carver.” The Art News (October 23, 1937).

Storr, Robert. “William Edmondson.” In Elsa Longhauser and Harald Szeemann. Self-Taught Artists of the Twentieth Century: An American Anthology. San Francisco: Chronicle Books in association with Museum of American Folk Art, 1998, 62-67.

Thompson, John. “Negro Stone Cutter Here Says Gift From Lord; Work Praised.” [Nashville] Tennessean (February 9, 1941), p. 11A.

Lee Kogan

Curator Emerita

American Folk Art Museum

New York, New York

Information courtesy of Sotheby’s, September 2011.

Edmondson, son of freed slaves, took up stone cutting and carving when he was in his late 50s. He had worked in Nashville as a laborer until the 1930s, and as he later recalled, was commanded by God to do his carvings, which he called his “miracles.” He expressed his profound faith by working on discarded pieces of limestone from demolished buildings and treets, using basic tools. Edmondson established himself as a stone-cutter, at first creating grave markers, in the tradition of carving seen in the South. His yard was soon replete with his creations of Biblical images, heroes and animals. These unique stone “miracles” were exceptionally sensitive, yet powerful creations.

It was in the 30s that Edmondson and his sculpture yard were “discovered” by Louise Dahl-Wolfe, a noted New York fashion photographer. Later, he was also photographed by Edward Weston and the New York art world discovered him, a pure product of America. There was keen awareness of indigenous American art following the landmark exhibit “The Art of the Common Man in America.” Edmondson was the first African American artist to have a one-man show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1937; soon after his work was included in an American exhibition at the Jeu de Paume in Paris. Edmondson continued carving throughout the 1940s until age slowed his hand. He died in 1951 in relative obscurity.

In a period of almost twenty years, Edmondson completed about 100 sculptures. Edmondson has emerged as one of America’s most significant folk artists. The 1982 seminal exhibition “Black Folk Art in America” at the Corcoran Gallery of Art; and more recently a major retrospective at the American Museum of Folk Art that traveled nationwide “The Art of William Edmondson,” has renewed interest in his work. The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center, National Museum of American Art, Hirshhorn Museum, Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Cheekwood Museum of Art in Nashville are some of the museums with Edmondson’s work in their collections.

Information courtesy of Northeast Auctions, August, 2002.

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