William Edmondson, son of freed slaves, was born in Davidson County, Tennessee. One of six children, he grew up in Nashville and went to work at 16 as a manual laborer, railroad man, farm hand, fireman, and hospital janitor. He never learned to read and write. In 1929 he received “a vision from God,” who told him to take up the sculptor’s tools and 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.
As 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 local culture. In addition to imaginary “varmints” and “critters,” he sculpted American eagles and the blocky Dorset sheep with curlicue-like horns—considered indigenous to Middle Tennessee. Edmondson also represented schoolteachers, nurses, preachers, and popular figures like Eleanor Roosevelt and boxer Jack Johnson.
A plain and untutored man who made a 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 Art in America, 1930-1980,” which originated at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. (1982), and has been an important part of nearly every major group show on Folk art since.