When he was an apprentice under a stonemason, American sculptor William Edmondson developed an interest in sculpting. He self-taught himself to become one of his generation’s most celebrated artists. He created his work of art with discarded stones and simple tools. He made tombstones and yard ornaments that he sold.
He began cutting and carving rectangular and three-dimensional forms and inscribing his own words on the text with regular practice and consistency. His grave markers, birdbaths, animal forms, and sculptures of people he knew or admired became well-known.
Edmondson, the son of freed slaves, was the first African American to have a solo exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1937. In 1932, he established his own business. He stated that he was inspired by divine guidance and never took personal credit for his work.
Art curators and historians have praised Edmondson’s work for its originality, comparing him to contemporary artists. His work was praised for its subtle and deep poetic themes. He was recognized by the southern Black community as well as New York art lovers.
According to reports, Edmondson stated that his work was in praise of the Lord’s work. He claimed he didn’t consider himself an artist until others did. He claimed that his carvings were sermons he received in a vision.
It is unknown when Edmondson was born, but it is thought he was born around 1882. A fire is said to have destroyed the family Bible, which contained his exact birth date. George and Jane Edmondson of Nashville were his parents.
During his formative years, Edmondson worked at a variety of menial jobs. He worked as an orderly at Nashville’s Baptist Hospital. He had spent the majority of his life alone and unmarried. At some point in his life, he grew vegetables for sale.
He converted his home into a workshop where he carved limestones. His work was brought to the public’s attention by New York photographer Louise Dahl-Wolfe, who saw his work while visiting friends in Nashville in 1836. It was Dahl-Wolfe who introduced Edmondson’s work to Alfred Barr, the director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Barr was taken with Edmondson’s work and arranged for an exhibition the following year. The museum displayed ten of Edmondson’s sculptures, making him the museum’s first African-American artist to have a solo exhibition. Edmondson was also featured in “American Negro Art: Contemporary Painting and Sculpture,” a 1944 exhibition at the Newark Museum in New Jersey.
His artistic career lasted approximately 17 years. In 1947, Edmondson began experiencing ill health. He was diagnosed with cancer, which sapped his energy and made it difficult for him to work on his sculptures.
On February 8, 1951, he died. He was laid to rest in an unmarked grave in Nashville’s Mount Ararat Cemetery.