The first African American artist awarded a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art, William Edmondson was a self-taught stonecutter who regarded his craft as a divine calling: “Jesus has planted the seed of carving in me.” Edmondson allowed his chosen materials—often pieces of limestone—to inspire his subject matter which included memorial tombstones, animals, Biblical figures and angels, birdbaths, and garden ornaments.
Edmondson was born to freed slaves on a former plantation on the outskirts of Nashville, Tennessee. He never learned to read or write, and much of his childhood was spent working as a hired hand for a white landowner. At sixteen, he found jobs in Nashville at the city sewer line, followed by one at a racecourse. The Nashville, Chattanooga, and St. Louis Railway employed him in its shop, but a leg injury in 1907 forced him to leave that position. For the following twenty-five years, Edmondson worked as a janitor and orderly at the Women’s Hospital in Nashville until its closing in 1931.
A staunch Baptist, Edmondson turned to stonecutting after receiving a message from God: “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 make. . . . God was telling me to cut figures.” His first tools were rudimentary, including a chisel fashioned from a railroad stake. Members of his church and community were his first customers, purchasing tombstones and other cut stones for prices as modest as five or ten dollars.
Edmondson’s life changed dramatically after Louise Dahl-Wolfe, a noted photographer for Harper’s Bazaar, came to visit. Once back in New York, she showed her photographs to the curator and director at the Museum of Modern Art, who decided to mount an exhibition of Edmondson’s work in 1937, making him the first black artist to have a one-man show at the fledgling institution. The following year, his work was included in Three Centuries of Art in the United States at Paris’ Musée du Jeu du Paume. Despite this international recognition, it was not until 1941 that Edmondson’s work was publicly displayed in his hometown at the Nashville Art Gallery.
While many of Edmondson’s pieces were inspired by religious figures, he also portrayed contemporaries: Eleanor Roosevelt and the prizefighters Jack Johnson and Joe Louis. It is estimated that between 1931 and 1948, when he stopped for health reasons, Edmondson carved three hundred stones. These sculptures are at once emphatic and understated, symmetrical objects whose dimensions were determined by the original block. He generally rounded his edges and did not concern himself with details. At times, the figure is not fully released from the stone and often there is a humorous tone to his depictions. Since Edmondson worked alone and frequently used stones from buildings being demolished, the scale of his pieces is necessarily small.
Posthumously, as interest in self-taught African American artists grew, Edmondson began to receive broader curatorial recognition. The Tennessee State Museum’s 1981 inaugural exhibition was a retrospective of his career, an exhibition that circulated to other venues under the auspices of the Southern Arts Federation. Other museums, including the American Folk Art Museum in New York and the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum in Williamsburg, own examples of his work. Following his death in 1951, Edmondson was interred in a Nashville cemetery. Burial records have since been lost, and the artist’s precise gravesite and any accompanying tombstone are unknown.