Tennessee Botanical Garden and Museum of Art

Nashville, TN



The Art of William Edmondson

January 28 - April 23, 2000


Cheekwood Tennessee Botanical Garden and Museum of Art presents The Art of William Edmondson in the newly refurbished Museum of Art, January 28 - April 23, 2000. This major exhibition will be the artist's first full scale retrospective in over nineteen years and the first ever to travel nationally. The Cheekwood exhibit is the kick-off event in the Edmondson tour, in which 40 sculptures will be exhibited in New York City, Rochester, Atlanta and Orlando. (left: William Edmondson (1874 - 1951), School Teacher, Cheekwood Museum of Art)

Cheekwood Museum of Art has also received a $100,000 grant from the Henry Luce Foundation for the traveling exhibition and catalogue, The Art of William Edmondson. The Luce Foundation offers national awards that are highly competitive in the area of American fine arts. The Foundation is committed to scholarship and enhancement of this field. The Luce funds are used for the development of scholarly exhibitions and publications that will make a significant contribution in the study of American art.

Organized by the Cheekwood Museum of Art, the sculptures will be accompanied by approximately 40 historical photographs that will provide a strong, contextual background for Edmondson's work. A catalog is also being published by the University Press of Mississippi. The catalog will critically challenge existing scholarship and present new interpretations that - for the first time - relocate Edmondson's sculpture within the cultural milieu of his time. The reinterpretation should provide mainstream audiences opportunities to rethink the importance of Edmondson as an American artist. In the foreward to the catalog John Wetenhalll, PhD, Director, Cheekwood Museum of Art, explains: "Most of all, Edmondson was an artist of extraordinary tenderness and humane compassion. He carved with a hand attuned to subtle detail and a vision capable of encompassing the essence of a subject in the most elegantly economical of forms. His art conveys such imagination and life that even without its context worthy of scholars, it would be worth every minute of our looking." (right: William Edmondson (1874 - 1951), Horse, Cheekwood Museum of Art)

A native of Nashville, William Edmondson (1874 - 1951) was the first African American artist to be featured in a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1937. Edmondson was a stone carver, born to former slaves, who worked with a hand-made chisel on limestone block discarded from demolished buildings; inspired, he said, by religious visions, he did not start sculpting until he was about sixty years old. (left: Louise Dahl-Wolfe, William Edmondson, 1936, gelatin silver print, Cheekwood Museum of Art )

When the Depression hit in 1929, Edmondson lost his job as a hospital orderly and began carving tombstones for the two African American cemeteries in Nashville, Mt. Ararat and Greenwood. Edmondson told the story of how God spoke to him. "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. (right: William Edmondson (1874 - 1951), Bess and Jon, c. 1930s to 40s, limestone, 16 1/2 x 20 1/ x 10 inches, Cheekwood Museum of Art)

A near neighbor, Sidney Hirsch, introduced Edmondson to Louise Dahl-Wolfe, the famous photographer for Harper's Bazaar. Dahl-Wolfe photographed Edmondson working in his back yard and showed the photos to Alfred Barr, the first director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This led to Edmondson's show there.

Today, Edmondson is hailed as "one of the outstanding folk carvers - if not the outstanding one - of the 20th century," noted Robert Bishop, the first director of New York's Museum of American Folk Art. The Cheekwood collection is now the largest Edmondson collection in the country, thanks to recent gifts. (Please see William Edmondson Sculptures Gifted to Cheekwood.) Cheekwood curator, Rusty Freeman, an expert on Edmondson, says, "Through the national tour, many visitors will have the opportunity to see and appreciate the full range and depth of Edmondson's talent. This exhibition will present Edmondson's work in the mainstream of American art for the first time. (left: label pending; right: William Edmondson (1874 - 1951), Eve, c. 1936, Cheekwood Museum of Art)

The retrospective will open at Cheekwood on January 28, 2000 and run through April 23. It will then travel to the Museum of American Folk Art in New York City, the High Museum of Art, Folk Art and Photography Galleries in Atlanta, the Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester in Rochester, NY, and The Mennello Museum of American Folk Art in Orlando, Florida.

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Read more about Cheekwood Museum of Art in Resource Library.

For further biographical information please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

rev. 9/19/06, rev. 12/23/10

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