William Edmondson, the son of freed slaves, was born around 1874 in Davidson County, Tennessee. One of six children, he grew up in Nashville and went to work at sixteen years of age as a manual laborer, railroad man, farm hand, fireman, and hospital janitor. He never learned to read and write. It was in 1929 that he received a vision from God, who told him to take up the sculptor’s tools and to work on His behalf.
Edmondson salvaged rectangular chunks of native limestone from demolished houses and curbs from city streets. Using a sledgehammer and crude chisels fabricated from railroad spikes, his first carvings as an apprentice stonemason were tombstones for the Black community.
A member of the United Primitive Baptist Church, Edmondson was influenced by fundamentalist ideals. His carvings of angels, biblical characters, and animals are strong and deceptively simple works that were inspired by his faith. He was a keen observer of nature and of local culture. In addition to imaginary “varmints” and “critters,” he sculpted American eagles and the blocky Dorset sheep with curlicued horns, then indigenous to Middle Tennessee. Edmondson also shaped schoolteachers, nurses, preachers and popular figures like Eleanor Roosevelt and the prize fighter Jack Johnson.
A plain and untutored man who made his living selling his carvings and home-grown vegetables from his house in South Nashville, Edmondson went on to become the first Black artist to have a one-man show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1937. He was also part of a major traveling exhibition: “Black Folk in America, 1930-1980,” which originated at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, in 1982. He has been an important part of nearly every major group show on folk art since.
New York Times article by Tessa DeCarlo (May 2000)