Will Edmondson (1874-1951) was such a stone carver, but he didn’t realize it until late in life. He was born in Davidson County, Tennessee about 1870 and his parents were slaves of the Edmondson and Compton families. In his younger days he worked as a field hand, and later as a laborer at Nashville’s sewer works. He was hired by a railroad company in about 1900, but lost that job in 1907 when he injured his leg. From 1908 to 1931 he was a janitor at the Women’s Hospital in Nashville. After the hospital closed and he lost his job, he received the inspiration to carve. Here is how he described his moment of revelation:
“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 daylight He hung a tombstone for me to carve.”
Convinced that Jesus had “planted the seed of carving” in him, Edmondson began his work by carving memorials, mostly embellished by doves or sheep, and most commissioned by members of his congregation for use in their cemetery (see photo).
Before long he was carving animals and human figures, angels and crucifixions. As he put it “First He told me to carve tombstones, then He told me to cut the figures.” His style was distinctly “modern,” with generalized forms and a tendency toward abstraction. He worked with a homemade chisels and files on locally available limestone blocks.
Between 1934 and 1937 fashion photographer Louise Dahl-Wolfe, acting on a tip from a friend, photographed Edmondson and his sculpture. She shared her photos with Alfred Barr, Jr., then Director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Barr was the most important proponent of contemporary folk art during the 1930s.
In 1937 Barr did something no one had ever thought to do before: he put together a small one-man show of 12 stone carvings by Edmondson, the first single-artist exhibition of an African-American in the museum’s history. In 1938, one year after Edmondson’s one-man show at MOMA, Barr organized the MOMA exhibition Masters of Popular Painting, which featured both American and European self-taught artists, including Edmondson along with noted self-taught artists John Kane, Lawrence Lebduska, and Horace Pippin. Seven years after beginning to carve, Edmondson had reached the pinnacle of achievement in the emerging art capital of the world.
Will Edmondson died in 1951 at the age of 77, but his art has continued to be highly regarded in the museum world. He was featured in the landmark 1980 exhibition Black Folk Art in America: 1930-1980 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. The catalogue states that “more than any other painter or sculptor in this exhibition [there were 20 artists featured], William Edmondson has achieved recognition as an American artist, not only as a black or folk artist.”
We are very fortunate to have one of Edmondson’s pieces in the Fenimore Art Museum collection. It is s carving of three birds, very reminiscent of the artist’s early work in gravestone carving. Measuring 11 ½” in width, its precise meaning and date are unknown. Its minimalist lines and formal rhythms seem to me a reflection of the Edmondson’s mastery of craft and clarity of vision.