Marin R. Sullivan, ed. The Sculpture of William Edmondson: Tombstones, Garden Ornaments, and Stonework. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2021. Illustrations. ix + 157 pp. $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8265-0236-0.
Reviewed by Thaisa Way (University of Washington )
Published on H-Environment (March, 2022)
Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)
How do we reevaluate art historical scholarship when there is little in terms of new evidence? This question lies at the core of a new museum catalogue of the work of William Edmondson (ca. 1874-1951) at Nashville’s Cheekwood Museum of Art. This museum first exhibited Edmondson’s sculptures in 1964 followed by a larger traveling exhibit in 2000 and then most recently in collaboration with Fisk University launched the major retrospective The Sculpture of William Edmondson: Tombstones, Garden Ornaments, and Stonework, August 12 to October 31, 2021. Best known for his solo exhibit in 1937 at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City, the museum’s first Black artist to have a solo show, Edmondson has since his death in 1951 become “the fabled black sculptor of Nashville, Tennessee.” Edmund L. Fuller’s Visions in Stone: The Sculpture of William Edmondson came out in 1973 as the only monograph on the artist. Examples of his work have been included in over seventy-five exhibits since, of which a handful were solo shows. Several exhibits included catalogues with essays, including David C. Driskell’s inclusion of Edmondson in his Two Centuries of Black American Art exhibition hosted by Fisk University’s Art Department in 1976. An exhibit at the Tennessee State Museum in 1981, William Edmondson: A Retrospective, produced a catalogue with essays by John Michael Vlach on Black cemeteries and tombstones in Black art and culture, among others (see Georganne Fletcher and Jym Knight's William Edmondson: A Retrospective; The Catalogue of an Exhibition Organized by the Tennessee State Museum, a Division of the Tennessee Arts Commission ).
In 2000 the Cheekwood exhibit was accompanied by a significant collective of essays that sought to counter the most simplistic myths about Edmondson’s literacy and his isolation in Tennessee as one who had to be “discovered” by white patrons (see Rusty Freeman, Robert Farris Thompson, and Tennessee Fine Arts Center's The Art of William Edmondson ). Nevertheless, as Marin R. Sullivan notes in her introductory essay to the 2021 catalogue, while Edmondson’s work has been appreciated over the last seventy years, “myths that took root during his lifetime, born of a Jim Crow South and a racist art world, have remained all-too entrenched” (p. 9). This newest catalogue is a productive addition to the literature further positioning Edmondson’s work within the framework of questions of labor, gender, social analysis, and commercial enterprise.
Edmondson grew up in Tennessee where he was the sixth child of formerly enslaved parents. In 1932 after a lifetime as a laborer he was inspired by a spiritual vision to carve discarded blocks of limestone into tombstones. He initially sculpted tombstones for Nashville’s African American community. His tools were chisels adapted from railroad spikes with which he created animals, such as squirrels, horses, owls, lions, rams, and what he termed “critters.” He also carved figures of such biblical subjects as angels; secular individuals, including Jack Johnson and Eleanor Roosevelt; and significant community leaders, including preachers, teachers, and nurses. In 1936, as the story goes, Sidney Mttron Hirsch, a neighbor, noticed Edmondson’s work and invited others to appreciate the pieces, including Louise Dahl-Wolfe, a New York photographer for Harper’s Bazaar. It was she who brought the work to the attention of Alfred Barr Jr., the director of MoMA after her own editor refused to publish a piece on a Black artist.
The Cheekwood exhibit catalogues in both 2000 and 2021 featured essays on Edmondson’s life and work positioning his art in the broader context of folk and fine arts. The 2000 catalogue featured six essays as well as a photo essay by Edward Weston in 1941 that together interrogates the work and its context, and offers interpretations of the sculptures as subjects. The 2021 catalogue reads best as a second volume as it builds on similar topics but with a more contemporary reframing of the questions and responses. The first essay, by Sullivan, curator at Cheekwood Estate and Gardens, broadly introduces Edmondson’s work, while the last essay describes the search for his remaining tombstones in cemeteries. This last essay precedes a series of lists, including an exhibition history and a bibliography, updated since 2000.
While the photographs, primarily by Dahl-Wolfe, Weston, and Consuelo Kanaga, are ones we have seen in previous catalogues, here they accompany essays that suggest how they might be more deeply explored for intentions and narratives. Renee Ater discusses Edmondson’s Stone Women that include teachers, nurses, church ladies, and angels, all of whom suggest the power and compassion of Black womanhood in the social fabric of Black life of Nashville. In the context of the first essay by Learotha Williams, who describes Nashville and its Black community contemporary to Edmondson, the role of women in his sculptures suggests a narrative that has not been fully explored as the topic crosses secular and religious themes. Kela B. Jackson challenges the canonic descriptions of monumentality, again framing a different manner of exploring the work in its very specific context. She interrogates Edmondson’s sculptures as articulating a vision of “quotidian monumentality ... [that] truly embodied the world around” him and from which he created humble monuments (p. 70). Both essays reveal the power of particularity as opposed to broad categories of primitive or folk art and in the process suggest how his sculptures as well as the place of his production, his landscape and yard, foregrounded an “an African American vernacular conception of counter monumental space that envisages the pedestrian and mundane as imbued with spiritual and communal significance” (p. 74). Anne Monahan critiques the reception and reviews of Edmondson’s work, arguing that they have been limited at best and dismissive more often even when claiming to celebrate the work. Her suggestion of Edmondson’s sculptures as wayfinding pieces, both literally in the cemetery and metaphorically as the artist navigated the art world in the context of Jim Crow, suggests an alternative approach to historical critique of artists and patrons/critics. Ellen Macfarlane takes on the topic of how Edmondson and his works of art were photographed and the narrative of labor in the making of the work, though one wishes we knew more here. Each of the essays seeks to unravel a single thread, not based on new archives but rather building on prior texts as well as specifics of the works of art as yet not fully understood.
The catalogue with its historic photographs as well as new images of the art, alongside the provocative essays, suggests alternative approaches to understanding Edmondson’s work without being able to come fully to new insights that would change what we know. Read alongside the catalogue from the 2000 exhibit, as well as other catalogues, the new work offers a productive interrogation of a body of work that still resonates with audiences both in and out of the art world. And to answer the question I began with, a reexamination of works of art does not require new evidence but rather necessitates the willingness to question again assumptions embedded in the vocabularies of critiques and in this work new knowledge is shared. Nowhere is this more important than in works that challenge the so-called canon of art, folk or fine.
. Robert Farris Thompson, “Edmondson’s Art,” in Two Centuries of Black American Art: [Exhibition], Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Museum of Fine Arts, Dallas, the Brooklyn Museum, edited by David C. Driskell (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1976), 3.
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Thaisa Way. Review of Sullivan, Marin R., ed., The Sculpture of William Edmondson: Tombstones, Garden Ornaments, and Stonework.
H-Environment, H-Net Reviews.
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