In a 1933 letter to art historian James Porter, self-taught sculptor Leslie Bolling wrote that “few things this side of Heaven give me the joy that carving does.” Over the course of his brief career, the Virginian executed around eighty portraits, genre scenes, and nudes in wood, works that garnered acclaim in his hometown of Richmond and—more significantly—drew meaningful support from prominent leaders of the Harlem Renaissance. During the Depression, Bolling helped secure WPA funding for Richmond’s Craig House Art Center, which served as a hub for African American cultural activities from 1938 to 1941, and where Bolling taught carving to black youth.

Born in Dendron, a small community in Virginia’s timber country, Leslie Garland Bolling grew up among densely-forested fields of “beautiful lumber,” his description of the material that would eventually become his preferred medium. The son of a blacksmith, Bolling lost his mother in 1911, a death he later acknowledged as having “changed the whole course of my life.” Throughout most of his childhood, Bolling eschewed whittling wood for “copying pictures.” He enrolled in the preparatory department at Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) in 1916 and then advanced to Virginia Union University in Richmond, graduating in 1924.

By 1926, Bolling had begun to carve. The artist traced his initial inspiration to the sight of a “tall lady” stepping out of a carriage; the “image remained” until he went home and attempted to recreate the figure. His fascination with the process of “freeing art from wood” was such that friends urged Bolling to enter his pieces in an exhibition held at the YWCA. Three Richmond men then brought Bolling’s work to the attention of Carl Van Vechten, an influential New York writer and patron of the Harlem Renaissance. Girded by this encouragement, Bolling successfully submitted works to the Harmon Foundation exhibition in 1933 and was included in the Smithsonian’s Exhibition of Works by Negro Artists that same year.

This exposure brought Bolling into contact with important faculty members at Howard University, including James Herring; Alain Locke, who included a photograph of the sculptor at work in his seminal treatise, The Negro in Art (1940); and Porter, who discussed Bolling’s sculpture in his landmark survey publication, Modern Negro Art (1943). While the extent of Bolling’s engagement with the intellectual debates surrounding African American art is unclear, he was fully confident in the strength and significance of his own work. When a submission to the Baltimore Museum of Art was rejected on the grounds of it being “applied art,” Bolling registered his objection in a 1939 letter: “Applied Art is that art which has a use or can be used. . . . Fine Art is that art which has no use, save its aesthetic value and beauty. . . . Connoisseurs both in America and a broad [sic] have my works in their collections as fine arts. . . . I am of the opinion that [the curator] doesn't know very much about art.” In 1935, Bolling became the first African American artist accorded a solo exhibition at the Richmond Academy of Art. The installation attracted over two thousand visitors, including the eminent Regionalist painter Thomas Hart Benton, who noted that Bolling’s sculptures “show real merit, and a new kind of form.”

Bolling’s subjects were typically anonymous human forms, rendered without overt symbolism, although he did execute several portraits of recognizable living persons, such as Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt, in the 1940s. The majority of his sculptures are small in stature, ranging from twelve to twenty inches in height, and carved with a pocketknife from female poplar wood. In some instances, he applied a light wax to the surface of the wood to achieve a rich finish; on rare occasions, he applied paint or tints. Days of the Week, the artist’s most celebrated series, consisted of a group of six African American women performing tasks associated with specific days of the week, as well as a male figure titled Parson on Sunday.

Despite Bolling’s accomplishments in the national arena, he was never able to sustain a living from his sculpture and eventually stopped carving by the mid-1940s. Following his death in 1955, the artist and his work fell into obscurity. The Library of Virginia mounted a 2006 retrospective, which helped introduce contemporary audiences to Bolling’s remarkable talent. Bolling’s works are represented in the collections of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the Beinecke Library at Yale University, and the Valentine Museum.