A Celebration of African American Artists: William Edmondson

August 03 2020

A Celebration of African American Artists: William Edmondson
A Celebration of African American Artists: William Edmondson


One thing that really inspired me about William Edmondson, was that he started his artwork at 60 years of age. This shows that no matter what age you are, art is something that anyone, at any age can create and enjoy. Besides this, Edmondson’s journey is an interesting and profound one. 

Early life

William Edmondson was born in December 1874 on the Compton Plantation in Tennessee. The exact date of his birth is unknown because a fire destroyed the family Bible. He was born to parents who were formally slaves, Jane and Orange Edmondson. William was one of 6 children. The family worked on a farm, tending to livestock and working in cornfields. The family earned a mere $12 a month. It’s terrible to think that a family of 8 had to survive on such small means. 

From early on Edmondson saw angels in the clouds and believed that God spoke to him. This interesting spiritual need later influenced his art greatly. He also had very little or even no formal education during this time. Sadly during these years, the schooling of African American children was considered a crime. Only later were some of the first schools open for African American children but they were segregated from white children. African American children at this time, who were sent to school, had to struggle with harsh conditions of the time. For example, not enough teachers, too many children in a class, and lack of financing. 

At the age of 16 after Edmondson’s father died, he decided to leave the harsh working environment of the plantation and moved to Nashville to find work.  In Nashville, he found work at a railroad shop, and work was good. Sadly after an accident at the railroad shop, he had to leave but in 1907 he found a job working as a custodian at the Nashville Woman’s Hospital. His wages were good and allowed him to buy a home in Edgeville. This was a segregated area in Nashville. Edmondson worked at the hospital until it closed down in 1939. 

His family joined him to stay in his home, including his mother Jane. He never got married, but accounts mention how his home was filled with laughter and family barbeques. This was mainly due to his sister Sarah, who loved storytelling as well.  

Once the hospital closed down in 1939, Edmondson took up part-time jobs and made sculptures in his backyard.

Edmondson’s artistic career

As mentioned earlier, William Edmondson began his art career in his 60s. In 1934, he received a vision from God. In this vision, God told him to start sculpting. Apparently, in the vision, God laid out a tombstone for him to make. This was when Edmondson knew that his true calling was to become a sculptor. Edmondson then began to carve tombstones out of discarded limestone. He would sell these tombstones or give them to friends and family in the community. He also began to carve sculptures. You can see that his work was greatly influenced by his faith. Many of his sculptures depict religious themes, such as the “Crucifixion and “Noah's Ark”. He also carved animals, birdbaths, angels, rabbits, and horses. The sculptures were made from limestone mainly, and were straightforward. You could see exactly what he meant by his artworks. 

It’s interesting to note that in some of his facial sculptures he would make the nose broader; some art historians guess that this was to show racial inclusion in his works. Even though his works were versatile with different themes and forms, there was still a common characteristic of his works. For example, his sculptures had a “bulky” over-built frame. Oftentimes there were etches in his works, which molded in with smoothness. Some works were chiseled roughly, while others were more polished. Sometimes all of these different textures were present. 

Many of his works were displayed in the homes of friends or in the gardens of people in his community. In 1935, he was discovered by Sidney Hirsch who was an art enthusiast from Peabody College. Hirsch was an avid collector of African art and became one of Edmondsons’ greatest supporters. Because of this, Edmondson’s art became famous and many other members of Nashville’s elite bought his works to display in their homes, gardens, and even offices.  Many of his sculptures were eventually displayed in The Smithsonian Art Museum. 

But just to show how sickeningly bad racial prejudice was at the time, Louise Dahl-Wolfe, a photographer, who became friends with Edmondson took a few photos of his works and wanted to have them displayed in the Harper’s Bazaar magazine, which she worked for. Her editor refused to have Edmondsons works featured in the magazine just because of his race. He even said that African people were nothing more than servants.  Sadly we are still fighting the battle of racial prejudice today. Where so many talented people of color are shamed or refused just because of the color of their skin. 

But despite this sad encounter, Louise Dahl-Wolfe introduced Edmondson to Alfred Barr who was the director of the Museum of Modern Art. Edmondson was the first African American to have his works exhibited at MoMA. This was an incredible thing back then! His was the first one-man show exhibition from October to December 1937. His work was exhibited in Paris even in 1938. Sadly though his international works were short-lived, as many viewed his works as a novelty, and as “primitive”. This had a lot to do with the racial prejudice at the time. But Alfred Starr continued to promote Edmondsons work to his friends and acquaintances.

Much of Edmondson’s art after this was included in folk arts exhibitions during the 1950s and 1960s.  His art was also exhibited in the influential “Two Centuries of Black American Art” exhibition.

In 1948 Edmondson stopped sculpting and passed away at the age of 76 in his home in Nashville due to an illness. To this day his exact burial site is unknown because back then African Americans were buried in cheap wooden caskets, thus causing grave markers to sink in. Burial records were lost in a fire, and therefore no one knows exactly where he has been laid to rest.

Now his artworks are greatly valued by critics and art collectors alike. Many of his works sell between $70 000 - $300 000. 

In conclusion

William Edmondson’s journey was an inspirational one. It shows how it's never too late to pursue what you love, but it also shows how much prejudice African American artists had to endure back then, and sadly are still facing today. This is why this blog means so much to me. We want to celebrate African American artists and all that they have accomplished, despite unjust treatment and prejudice.  What are your thoughts on this? We would love to hear from you!