On view at Cheekwood and Fisk University, Nashville, TN
August 12-October 31, 2021
Curated by Marin R. Sullivan
William Edmondson (1974-1951) did not set out to become one of the most significant self-taught artists of the twentieth century, but he also did not work in obscurity, passively waiting to be discovered by wealthy white patrons and the art world establishment. While his limestone carvings may have been a revelation for those lucky enough to see them in Edmondson’s lawn and home studio in Nashville’s Edgehill neighborhood, he took up the practice late in life as professional pursuit, creating beautiful and functional objects meant to be seen and used by his neighbors, friends, and broader community. Sixty years after his passing in 1951, his carvings are now in major national and international private and public collections, a testament to the enduring significance and aesthetic appeal of his work for sure. Yes, Edmondson was the first Black artist to receive a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and yes, he is arguably the most famous sculptor of the twentieth century who called Nashville home, but of equal if not more importance—at least to me—is that he decided, in his 50s, to teach himself how to carve limestone, committed to a new career, and started a small business in the early 1930s, at the beginning of the Great Depression, in the Jim Crow South. He made objects that marked, literally in stone, the passage of members of his community, some of which can still be seen today in Nashville’s cemeteries. He created birdbaths, yard statuary, and garden ornaments meant to be seen and used to make the urban environment just a bit more beautiful and visually interesting. He carved figures of the people and animals living in his neighborhood, prevalent in the teachings of his Christian faith, and drawn from contemporary American and African American culture. Porch ladies and nurses received the same care and attention as the famed boxer Jack Johnson and then First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
Cheekwood is fortunate to have the largest single repository of Edmondson and Edmondson-related works in the world. The Sculpture of William Edmondson: Tombstones, Garden Ornaments, and Stonework is the latest in a line of exhibitions to feature the artist, held at the institution since the 1960s, but the underlying motivation for organizing another in 2021 was not simply to highlight Cheekwood’s holdings or the work of this remarkable Nashville artist, though hopefully both of those things will still be accomplished. Organized during a global pandemic and a period of pronounced racial reckoning in the United States, the driving force of this exhibition was both to recenter Edmondson within his own narrative and reposition the institution as a better public steward of this tremendous collection. The subtitle of the exhibition is a nod to the sign advertising Edmondson’s business installed above to door to his studio, and notable loaned pieces from private and public collections are included to contextualize the breadth of his creative practice more fully.
With the generous support of the Henry Luce Foundation, the Terra Foundation for American Art, and the Wyeth Foundation for American Art, Cheekwood published a catalogue in collaboration with Vanderbilt University Press that features new voices and perspectives on Edmondson’s work, and for the first time in the institution’s history the entirety of the Edmondson and Edmondson-related Cheekwood collection, including new photographs of these objects, is accessible online. Part of the exhibition is concurrently on view at Fisk University Galleries, free of charge, and Critter, one of Edmondson’s most unique carvings from Cheekwood’s collection will remain there on long-term loan following the close of the exhibition.
It is my profound hope that such efforts will serve as catalysts, as starting points rather than exclamation points, introducing new audiences to the work of this great Tennessean; prompting deeper inquiry and appreciation for those already familiar with his sculpture and story; and inviting students, scholars, and stewards of all backgrounds to more fully and easily utilize the resources of the Edmondson Collection at Cheekwood in order to continue expanding the legacy of William Edmondson for generations to come.