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Archive for June 15th, 2012

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 out for me to make.

—–William Edmondson, on his inspiration to begin sculpting

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My last post was about the grand paintings of the Renaissance era, beautifully crafted pieces from painters who were extensively trained under master artisans so that they could capture the religious spirit that was the subject and inspiration for most of the work of that time.  But that post made me think about how others, less schooled and less well equipped, translate this same inspiration into forms.

That  thought brought me quickly to William Edmondson,  a man born in 1874 in Tennessee to former slaves.  Edmondson worked in a number of jobs throughout his life, losing his job as a hospital orderly in the late 1920’s when he was in his mid-50’s.  It was at this point that he had the vision he describes above which led to him to begin sculpting for two African-American cemeteries in the Nashville area.

 Using handmade tools such as a chisel made from a railroad spike and working on discarded chunks of stone from building sites, it soon became clear that Edmondson had a true affinity for capturing the essence of figures in stone with forms that were spare but elegant with subtle shaping.  I see a simplified elegance in much of his work that cannot be taught, that is simply an expression of the artist’s self and spirit.

Edmondson sculpted for the next couple of decades until his death in 1951, gaining acclaim as perhaps the finest American folk sculptor of the century.  He was the first African-American artist to be featured  in New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1937 and his work is still celebrated today for its extraordinary qualities.

Edmondson’s called each of his sculptures “miracles,”  something that strikes very close to home for me.  I think it’s that feeling of having something emerge from your hand that seems to transcend what you are as a human, something that is more than the sum of your own parts.  I have sometimes been fortunate enough to have experienced this and have felt that same sense of wonder at this miracle of creation.  It’s a wonderful moment that serves as  inspiration to continue to push forward with the work, to continue the inward journey.  It’s a true  pleasure to see Edmondson’s inspirations come to life.

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