"Stone Carved Bird Bath" by William Edmondson
Measures 22" x 14" x 5"
Born in 1874 to former slaves in Davidson County, Tennessee (near Nashville), William Edmondson began his astounding sculptural practice in his fifties. Today he is internationally renowned as one of the greatest stone carvers of the 20th century. When he was sixteen, Edmondson’s family moved to Nashville proper, and he worked for the city sewer works and then the Nashville-Chattanooga and St. Louis railroads. Other early jobs included stints as a farmhand and stonemason’s assistant and a position as a janitor at Women’s Hospital (now Baptist Hospital). At the onset of the Great Depression, Edmondson lost his hospital job, and in the early 1930s experienced a heavenly vision, including a disembodied voice instructing him to “pick up [his] tools and start to work on a tombstone.” As he poetically testified: “I looked up in the sky and right there in the noon daylight, He hung a tombstone out for me to make.” A devout member of the United Primitive Baptist Church, Edmondson promptly complied with this divine directive, and soon the yard behind his house began to fill with limestone tombstones and sculptures. In 1935, his work came to the attention of Sidney Hirsch, a Vanderbilt professor, and soon after Edmondson’s carvings were photographed by Louise Dahl-Wolfe and Edward Weston. In 1937, Edmondson became the first African American artist to have a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Edmondson regularly referred to his works—originally intended as tombstones for Mount Ararat (today Greenwood West), a local African American cemetery––as “miracles.” Potent and elegant distillations of form, his sculptures achieve a charged presence as reminiscent of modernist sculpture as of African American vernacular funerary sculpture. His subjects ranged from the Biblical to the banal, and portraits of Eleanor Roosevelt and Jack Johnson mingled with crucifixions, arks, and angels as well as packs of squirrels, birds, horses, and other “critters.” His primary interest seems to have been the figure, human and animal, and his works consistently reflect the most eloquent and efficient means to impart a meditative, reductive grace to the subject. The suppleness and softness evident in the stone belie his unorthodox tools and media: he used a modified railroad spike as a chisel to shape limestone chunks salvaged from demolished city buildings and curbs. As his fame grew, city workers often delivered stone to his home for free. By the late 1940s, illness had forced Edmondson to retire from sculpting. He died in 1951 and was buried in Mount Ararat Cemetery.