Archive for November 15th, 2012

I’ve written here a number of times about my affection for  outsider or self-taught artists who pursue a personal vision in their own distinct manner.   They draw, paint, sculpt and carve  trying to express that essential part of themselves that demands to be released on to the world.  Many go on with their work for years and decades before they receive any recognition, if they ever receive any at all.  I can only imagine how many people toiled at their passions for their entire lives without anyone ever taking notice.  But some do eventually find recognition and it’s always gratifying to hear such stories.  One such story is that of Elijah Pierce.

Elijah Pierce was born to an ex-slave on a plantation  in Mississippi in 1894 and moved northward in the 1920’s , settling in Columbus, Ohio.  He took up a career as a barber in Columbus but had been taught chip carving  using a simple pocket knife by an uncle as a boy and it occupied his free time for over 60 years.  He carved figures and ornate reliefs of everyday scenes as well as depictions of biblical stories, popular figures of the day and just about anything that came into his mind, displaying them in a section of his barbershop.  One piece, The Book of Wood , from 1932, was a group of 33 bas-relief panels depicting scenes from the life of Christ that were bound together like a book.

In the 1970’s, Pierce’s work began to attract much deserved attention and the New York Times in 1979 in an article about folk art praised Pierce, saying that among all carvers, “none can equal the power of Pierce’s personal vision.”   That set off a rush among collectors and his fame grew in the folk art community.  He was honored with a National Endowment for the Arts award and the space at his barbershop once displayed a large group of his work was soon empty, the works snapped up by collectors and museums.

Pierce operated the barbershop until 1978 and passed away in 1984 at the age of 92.  He left a wonderful body of expressive work as a legacy, including a large collection at the Columbus Museum of Art,  and is memorialized with a statue (shown at the top of this post) at Columbus State Community College.  He has also been the subject of a biographical play that was performed in  Columbus.  It’s a wonderful thing to see someone maintain their vision for the entirety of their life and to have others recognize the beauty and power within it.  Elijah Pierce’s work was a perfect expression of himself.

Here’s a short film featuring Pierce.

Elijah Pierce from Zach Wolf on Vimeo.

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