THE FIRST MAJOR MUSEUM EXHIBITION of Tennessee-born William Edmondson (c. 1874-1951) in 20 years is on view at Cheekwood Estate & Gardens in Nashville, Tenn. Known for his stone sculptures, at once roughly rendered and poetic, Edmondson lived and worked in Nashville. Drawing on public and private collections, the show features 20 works from Cheekwood, the largest repository of the artist’s work.

Cheekwood describes “The Sculpture of William Edmondson: Tombstones, Garden Ornaments, and Stonework” as encyclopedic. About 35 sculptures, 15 documentary photographs, and a handful of archival materials are on view.

 


Installation view of WILLIAM EDMONDSON (American, 1874-1951), “Mary and Martha,” circa 1930-39 (limestone, 14 x 16 7/8 x 6 7/8 inches / 35.4 x 42.7 x 17.3 cm), “The Sculpture of William Edmondson: Tombstones, Garden Ornaments, and Stonework,” Cheekwood Estate & Gardens, Nashville, Tenn., 2021. | Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. (72.107)

 

A new fully illustrated catalog accompanies the exhibition with essays that shed light on many aspects of Edmondson’s biography, practice, and output. Written by exhibition curator Marin R. Sullivan, the lead essay in the catalog delineates Edmondson’s production and the goal of the exhibition.

“Edmondson did not create art for galleries or museums, nor did he seek out critical recognition or approval. While many have tried to separate his tombstones or functional pieces—bird baths, cups, etc.—from his more figural free-standing stonework, his entire practice was unabashedly a commercial enterprise. None of which makes Edmondson any less worthy of serious art historical consideration,” Sullivan wrote.

“This exhibition taking its subtitle from the original sign the sculptor placed in his yard for all to see, seeks to highlight and present to a new generation the diversity, richness, and creativity of Emdondson’s sculptural practice—on its own terms.”

“Edmondson did not create art for galleries or museums, nor did he seek out critical recognition or approval. While many have tried to separate his tombstones or functional pieces… from his more figural free-standing stonework, his entire practice was unabashedly a commercial enterprise. None of which makes Edmondson any less worthy of serious art historical consideration.” — Curator Marin R. Sullivan

Before he began making sculpture, Edmondson held a series of manual labor jobs, including working for the Nashville, Chattanooga, and St. Louis Railway and as an orderly and janitor at the local Woman’s Hospital. After a brief stint as a stone mason’s assistant, Edmondson turned his attention to the craft full time and became an entrepreneur.

He carved chunks of salvaged limestone and street curbs into modernist sculptures, gravestones, and garden ornaments, which he made and sold from his home, a property he owned in the Edgehill neighborhood of Nashville. Edmondson filled the yard with his creations and above the porch, hung a sign advertising his business. The sign read: “Tomb Stones. For Sale. Garden Ornaments. Stonework Wlm Edmondson 1434 14th S.”

Local writers and intellectuals associated with Vanderbilt University and George Peabody College for Teachers took notice of Edmondson’s work and stopped by regularly, eventually inviting one of their wives, a photographer, to meet the artist.

Employed by Harper’s Bazaar in New York, Louise Dahl-Wolfe captured Edmondson at work. Dahl-Wolfe couldn’t get her magazine to publish the images, “owing to the racism of its owner William Randolph Hearst.” So she decided to show them to her contacts at the Museum of Modern Art—interim director Thomas Mabry, a Nashville native who was already familiar with the artist, and founding director Alfred Barr Jr. In 1937, Edmondson became the first African American artist to have a solo exhibition at MoMA.

The catalog explores the genesis of the MoMA exhibition, myths about Edmondson’s background; the culture and climate of Nashville during the artist’s time; images by three key photographers who captured Edmondson’s work (Dahl-Wolfe, Consuelo Kanaga, and Edward Weston); the presence of tombstones he made for African American friends, neighbors, and family members in Nashville cemeteries; and his penchant for female subjects (“…seated nudes, teachers, brides, nurses, church ladies, women in capes, women sitting on porches, numerous female angels, a singular Eve, and Martha and Mary sitting on sofas.”).

Sullivan opened her essay with the following line: “William Edmondson was and remains Nashville’s most renowned sculptor.” CT

 

“The Sculpture of William Edmondson: Tombstones, Garden Ornaments, and Stonework” is on view at Cheekwood Estate & Gardens in Nashville, Tenn., from Aug. 12-Oct. 31, 2021

* A modest-sized complementary exhibition of works by William Edmondson (six sculptures and six photographs) is on view concurrently at Fisk University Art Galleries in Nashville

 


* WILLIAM EDMONDSON (American, 1874-1951), “Girl with a Cape,” n.d. (limestone, 26 ½ x 14 ½ x 7 ¼ inches). | Collection of Cheekwood Estate & Gardens, Gift from the Estate of Elizabeth Lyle Starr, 1982.8.1a-b. Photo by Eric Wheeler, 2021

 


* WILLIAM EDMONDSON (American, 1874-1951), “Critter,” circa 1935 (limestone, 20 ½ x 21 ½ x 5 ¼ inches). | Collection of Cheekwood Estate & Gardens, Gift of the 1993 Collectors Group with Matching Funds through the bequest of Anita Bevill McMichael Stallworth. 1993. 22. Photo by Eric Wheeler, 2021

 


WILLIAM EDMONDSON (American, 1874-1951), “Birdbath,” 1938 (limestone, 31 ½ x 20 ½ x 16 ½ inches). | Collection of , Gift of Sophia Ezzell Dobson, 1994.20a-d. Photo by Eric Wheeler, 2021

 


WILLIAM EDMONDSON (American, 1874-1951), “Reclining Man (Sidney Hirsch),” n.d. (limestone, 6 ¾ x 25 ½ x 7 1/2 inches). | Collection of Cheekwood Estate & Gardens, Gift of Michael LeBeck in memory of Sidney Mttron Hirsch. 1973.4.8. Photo by Eric Wheeler, 2021

 


Installation view of “The Sculpture of William Edmondson: Tombstones, Garden Ornaments, and Stonework,” Cheekwood Estate & Gardens, Nashville, Tenn., 2021. Photo by Eric Wheeler, Courtesy Cheekwood

 


Installation view of “The Sculpture of William Edmondson: Tombstones, Garden Ornaments, and Stonework,” Cheekwood Estate & Gardens, Nashville, Tenn., 2021. Photo by Eric Wheeler, Courtesy Cheekwood

 


WILLIAM EDMONDSON (American, 1874-1951), “Schoolteacher,” circa 1937 (limestone. 14 ½ x 31/2 x 7 ½ inches). | Collection of Cheekwood Estate & Gardens, Gift of John Thompson Jr. 1960.1. Photo by Eric Wheeler, 2021

 


Installation view of WILLIAM EDMONDSON (American 1874-1951), “Untitled (Schoolteacher),” circa 1930-40 (limestone, 16 ½ x 6 ½ x 9 ½ inches), “The Sculpture of William Edmondson: Tombstones, Garden Ornaments, and Stonework,” Cheekwood Estate & Gardens, Nashville, Tenn., 2021. | Collection of Jaime Frankfurt, New York

 


* WILLIAM EDMONDSON (American, 1874-1951), “Bess and Joe,” circa 1930-40 (limestone, 17 ¼ × 20 ¼ × 10 ½ inches). | Gift of Salvatore Formosa Sr., Mrs. Pete Formosa Sr., and Mrs. Rose Formosa Bromley and Museum Purchase through the Stallworth Bequest

 


Installation view of WILLIAM EDMONDSON (American, 1874-1951), “Crucifix,” n.d. (limestone, 26 × 12 × 5 inches), “The Sculpture of William Edmondson: Tombstones, Garden Ornaments, and Stonework,” Cheekwood Estate & Gardens, Nashville, Tenn., 2021. | Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center / The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, VA. Museum Purchase (1971.907.1)

 


Installation view of WILLIAM EDMONDSON (American, 1874-1951), “Squirrel,” 1940 (limestone, 11 ½ × 4 ½ × 7 inches), “The Sculpture of William Edmondson: Tombstones, Garden Ornaments, and Stonework,” Cheekwood Estate & Gardens, Nashville, Tenn., 2021. | Cheekwood, Nashville. Gift in memory of Gertrude G. and John S. Fletcher by their children Bee, John, and Whit (1999.11.3). Photo by Eric Wheeler, Courtesy Cheekwood

 


Installation view of WILLIAM EDMONDSON (American, 1874-1951), “Seated Girl with Folded Legs,” 1934–41 (limestone, 21 ½ × 16 ¾ × 10 ½ inches), “The Sculpture of William Edmondson: Tombstones, Garden Ornaments, and Stonework,” Cheekwood Estate & Gardens, Nashville, Tenn., 2021. | Collection of Newark Museum, Newark, N.J., Bequest of Edmund L. Fuller Jr., 1985 (85.32). Photo by Eric Wheeler, Courtesy Cheekwood

 


WILLIAM EDMONDSON (American, 1874-1951), “Ram,” 1935-40 (limestone, 10 ¼ × 14 ¾ × 5 ¾ inches). | Cheekwood, Nashville. Gift in memory of Gertrude G. and John S. Fletcher by their children Bee, John Jr., and Whit (1999.11.2). Photo by Eric Wheeler, Courtesy Cheekwood

 


Installation view of “The Sculpture of William Edmondson: Tombstones, Garden Ornaments, and Stonework,” Cheekwood Estate & Gardens, Nashville, Tenn., 2021. Photo by Eric Wheeler, Courtesy Cheekwood

 

FIND MORE One of William Edmondson‘s “Martha and Mary” sculptures sat gathering moss on a porch in Saint Louis, Mo., for decades. After a keen observer spotted it, Brian Donnelly, the artist known as KAWS purchased the work, The New York Times reported recently. Now a promised gift to the American Folk Art Museum in New York, the work will be featured in “Multitudes,” the museum’s 60th anniversary exhibition, opening in January. (Five sculptures from the collection of KAWS are featured in the Cheekwood exhibition: “Lady with Cape” (1935–40); Untitled (Seated Girl) (circa 1940); Untitled (Three Doves) (circa 1930–40); Untitled (Turtle) (circa 1940); and an untitled and undated female figure.)

 

BOOKSHELF
“The Sculpture of William Edmondson: Tombstones, Garden Ornaments, and Stonework” was published to accompany the exhibition. “The Art of William Edmondson” documents a presentation of William Edmondson’s work at Cheekwood Estate & Gardens in 2000. Also consider, “Bill Traylor, William Edmondson and the Modernist Impulse,” “Visions in stone: the sculpture of William Edmondson,” and the “Outliers and American Vanguard Art” catalog. The exhibition featured several sculptures by Edmondson.

 

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