William Edmondson (1874-1951), the son of freed slaves, never attended school and never learned to read and write, yet he became one of the great sculptors of our time. His works have been shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the National Museum of American Art at the Smithsonian, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Cheekwood Museum of Art in his native Nashville.
Edmondson always said he got his inspiration directly from God, so he set about carving old pieces of limestone, at first using only an old railroad spike, a chisel and a file. And from stone came solid, stocky, ancient-looking figures of the everyday, religious and heroic: porch ladies, a girl thinking, a rabbit, an owl, Adam and Eve, Jack Johnson and Eleanor Roosevelt. Poet Elizabeth Spires, in this beautifully made volume combining superb archival photographs by Edward Weston and Louise Dahl-Wolfe and her own 23 elegant poems, offers a celebration of an artist and his creations. For readers young and old who may not know Edmondson’s work, this volume will serve as a gorgeous introduction.
Edmondson pulled characters from stone, and Spires puts words into their mouths. The rabbit sculpture says, “He reached in his fingers, / caught hold of my ears, / and drew me right out / of that chunk of limestone!” And the narrator in “Girl Thinking” says, “Make me a girl, I wished / A girl with a space of quiet around her, / a girl with time to dream her dreams. / And he did. He did!”
Spires has Adam and Eve comment on their place in Edmondson’s yard, cluttered with sculptures, unused limestone and tangles of grass and weeds. “It’s a different kind of Eden, / arms thrown open to Creation.” And that’s the spirit of Edmondson’s work; he carved all sorts: “Preachers and schoolteachers, / shady and upstanding ladies, / and creatures you wouldn’t believe, / some humble, some proud, / some quiet, some loud, / everyone just being themselves.”
Spires, the author of such fine children’s books as The Mouse of Amherst and I Am Arachne: Fifteen Greek and Roman Myths, has crafted a memorable tribute to an important artist through words dexterously pulled from stone.
Dean Schneider is a teacher in Nashville.