If we did not know who carved the “Temptation of Adam” in the Fenimore Art Museum collection (lower right) it would be easy to infer that it must have been done by a person singularly devoted to God and living a simple, holy life. What we do know about the legendary carver Edgar Tolson, however, radically changes how we must interpret this masterpiece of American folk sculpture.
Tolson was born in 1904 in Wolfe County in eastern Kentucky, the fourth of eleven children of poor tenant farmers. When he was nine, Edgar carved a table; he went on to carve a whole set of dinnerware for his family. The region was known for its roughness, and Tolson told stories of gunfights in nearby Lee City that left dozens dead. His father was also a lay minister who schooled his children with frequent quotations from the Bible.
In spite of his religious upbringing, or perhaps because of it, Edgar became a notorious (and dangerous) prankster. He once loosened a board in his church’s floor so that when his long-winded uncle stood up to testify he smashed straight through the floor. Even more bizarre, when he was eighteen Tolson rigged some dynamite to the side of the church, set off a long fuse, and went in and sat down with the other congregants. The blast blew the side of the church off, blew out all of the windows, and fortunately only killed an old dog. When asked about this incident years later Tolson recalled, “We didn’t like the church and the way they was carrying on. We thought we’d have us some fun and would have died having it.”
Tolson eventually settled down, married, and had a family of his own. He worked in mines, and sawmills and continued to farm. He also began to preach, but became prone to alcoholic binges and relations with other women. He served a year in the state penitentiary for deserting his family and ended up, not surprisingly, divorced.
It was only after suffering a stroke in the late 1950s that Tolson turned his attention to woodcarving. The sculptures he made are now the most recognizable folk art ever to come out of Kentucky. His favorite theme: The Fall of Man, which included Adam and Eve in the Garden (upper left, private collection) Temptation of Adam (above right, Fenimore Art Museum) and Expulsion from Eden (below, Hall Collection, Milwaukee Art Museum). He produced about a hundred of these carvings. The key component of this series is always Temptation, and the autobiographic implications are obvious.
Tolson’s figures are always upright and stoic, resigned to their fate but resolute in their determination to survive. Each figure stands alone, even in his tableau. Perhaps this is the artist’s way of communicating the individual burden of personal responsibility for one’s actions. He once said, “Every man knows when he transgresses God’s law. Both Saint and Sinner.” This was a preacher who had faced many demons, and exorcised them with a penknife and a piece of Kentucky poplar.