May 26, 2024

William Edmondson: God Called His Name

William Edmondson was an African-American sharecropper from Tennessee. One day, God told him his destiny was to become an artist.

William Edmondson

Tennessee was the last southern state to join the Confederacy, during the US Civil War.

There was strong anti-slavery sentiment in the state, and a referendum  to join the pro-slavery rebels had been defeated in February 1861. But after war erupted in April of that year, Tennessee's Governor unilaterally took his state into the Confederacy, a move that was later approved at a second referendum.

After the war, the state both ratified the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, outlawing slavery, and added a similar amendment to Tennessee's own constitution. But despite these measures, and the outcome of the war, racial segregation remained entrenched in the state.

Under the so-called 'Jim Crow' laws, southern politicians moved beyond slavery by creating an environment referred to as 'separate but equal'. While black citizens in Southern states would no longer be slaves, they would be discriminated against in a thousand different ways; forced to live in segregated communities, allowed only menial jobs, and prohibited from voting or accessing education.

Into this environment, William Edmondson was born, in 1874.

Sharecropping in the US South, 1870s.
Sharecropping in the US South, 1870s.

Edmondson's parents were both freed slaves, who now made a living as sharecroppers.

Sharecropping was another example of the discriminatory mindset prevalent in the post war South. Black farmers were prevented from owning land, and so were forced to work the fields for wealthy, white plantation owners (often the same fields they had worked as slaves). They were not paid for their efforts, but were allowed to keep a portion of any crops they produced, with the balance handed over to the landowner.

Sharecropping was a difficult life, and its practitioners were notoriously poor.

Edmondson was put to work in the fields as soon as he was physically able, alongside his parents and five siblings. He received no schooling and was functionally illiterate, with limited reading and writing ability.

Union Station, Nashville, circa 1900.
Union Station, Nashville, circa 1900.

Edmondson's father passed away in 1889. His mother, struggling to make ends meet, then moved the rest of the family to Tennessee's capital, Nashville, hoping for better opportunities.

And their fortunes did improve, as they were able to find work in the city's burgeoning commercial and industrial sectors. Edmondson took a job for the Nashville Railway, labouring in the rail yards at Union Station, a position he would hold until 1907.

After a back injury made his rail work untenable, Edmondson was then able to find a job as a janitor at the Nashville Women's Hospital. This modest position, about as a high as an unschooled African-American could aim in the south, enabled Edmondson to buy a small house in the suburbs, where he would live with his mother and sisters.

William Edmondson at work

The hospital that employed Edmondson closed in 1931.

From that time he worked a variety of odd jobs; cleaning, labouring, even selling homegrown vegetables. Among these myriad positions, Edmondson worked for a time as a stonemason's assistant, helping turn blocks of limestone, into tombstones. From this role, Edmondson learned the basics of carving in stone; how to use the required tools, prepare and dress a block of stone, and the fundamentals of design.

In 1934, something extraordinary happened. Edmonson, who had never previously been exposed to fine art, heard a call to take up a new profession:

'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. I knowed it was God telling me what to do.'


- William Edmondson

He would later summarise this moment even more concisely; God had called his name.

Working with limestone blocks, of the sort he had become familiar with, Edmondson began to sculpt. Using stones under a metre in height, he created representations of things he knew from everyday life; deer, rabbits, sheep, preachers, and biblical figures.

His designs were simple, yet striking, employing broad strokes and clean lines to maximum effect.

A sheep, by William Edmondson

A rabbit, by William Edmondson

Mother and child, by William Edmondson

A couple, by William Edmondson

Almost as remarkable as Edmondson's sudden artistic awakening, was how rapidly he came to a wider public audience.

One of Edmondson's neighbours was Sidney Hirsch, a poet who taught at Vanderbilt University. Around 1935, Hirsch saw Edmondson's sculptures and, immediately recognising the raw talent on display, contacted his friends in the arts community. He was able to pique the interest of Louise Dahl-Wolfe, a photographer at 'Harper's Bazaar', who visited Edmondson and took pictures of his work.

These photos made their way to New York, where they reached Alfred H. Barr jr, then director of the city's acclaimed Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).

'Usually the naïve artist works in the easier medium of painting. Edmondson, however, has chosen to work in limestone, which he attacks with extraordinary courage and directness, to carve out simple, emphatic forms.'


-Alfred H. Barr jr

The basic nature of Edmondson's art had become its principle feature; the unadorned works stirred a simple, emotional response, and were accessible by anyone.

Barr was sufficiently impressed to offer Edmondson a solo show at MoMA, which took place between October and November, 1937. It was the first solo show by an African-American artist at a major art galley.

'Crucifixion', by William Edmondson
'Crucifixion', by William Edmondson. One of the pieces shown in his first MoMA exhibit.

The exhibition was well received, and Edmondson would be invited back to participate in a wider display of African-American art, in 1940. In subsequent years, his works have been shown all over the world, and are held in a number of prominent public collections.

Despite his rapid increase in stature in the art world, Edmondson continued to live a simple life, in the same house in Nashville. He would sculpt for 17 years, before retiring in the late 1940s, his old railway injuries again catching up with him and making it hard for him to work with stone.

William Edmondson died in Nashville in February, 1951.


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