Saturday, July 30, 2011

POST: William Edmondson / Legendary Black Artist's Work Is Forever / Montgomery Advertiser / July 25, 2011

William Edmondson photographed by Consuelo Kanaga © Brooklyn Museum
Written by Rheta Grimsley Johnson

CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. -- It is a sad fact that a legendary folk artist who made tombstones for many in Nashville's black community is buried in an unmarked grave.

After Harper's Bazaar photographed the remarkable work and face of William Edmonson, the Museum of Modern Art in New York recognized his genius. In 1937, MoMA staged a one-man show for Edmonson, the first solo event ever for a black artist.

In Mount Ararat Cemetery in Nashville, Tenn., no stone marks his resting place.

Yet William Edmondson lives in galleries across America, including the Mable Larson Gallery here at Austin Peay State University. I'm looking at three of Edmondson's limestone carvings with Joe Trahern Jr., who donated two of them. The third sculpture was a gift from Joe's late parents.

You can see right away why Edmondson's art, sold alongside his vegetables, caught the attention of a cosmopolitan photographer, Louise Dahl-Wolfe.

Not all folk art is created equal. But Edmondson, the son of slaves, carved stone as simple and profound as a Hemingway sentence.

"The Eagle" could anchor a president's grave. "The Critter" seems to be crawling from primeval goo. And, best of all for my money, a small piece called "The Lady with Two Pocketbooks," is a beguiling story where you provide the ending.

William Edmonson, even in death, demands our attention.

As a boy, Clarksville native Joe Trahern tagged along with his mother, who taught at Austin Peay, to visit Edmonson. There in the artist's back yard, they wandered through a garden of stone. Edmonson looked like he does in the famous photographs, Joe remembers, which is to say wise and worn as a family Bible. His face was a story, at least a novella. And Mrs. Trahern bought three pieces.

Critics then and now say the laborer was artistically inspired. Edmonson said he was guided by God. Either way, he left something behind. Few do.

Though he has a list of academic credentials as long as your arm, including a Ph.D. in English from Princeton University, Joe is as humble as the artist Edmonson. And he seems to have that same driving need to share. Joe insists he and his late wife, Marjorie, were "something akin to caretakers" of the valuable sculptures. Now everyone can enjoy them.

Lately I've thought a lot about art and its patrons. Powerful is the desire to wake up each day and look at a painting or a piece of sculpture or glass that brightens your world, if for a moment. It's a universal urge.

At the Pik-A-Rib restaurant where Joe and I end up elbow-deep in pulled pork, I think I have a Damascus moment. A longtime waitress now owns this venerable barbecue joint. Maybe all we ever are in this life are caretakers -- of land, of brick and mortar, of fine art, of restaurants. It's a common enough role, caretaker, but important, and can be done poorly or well.

A precious few actually add to life's vast collection. The rest of us stumble along with desire, but no celestial directives or rare talent. That's OK, too, if we never stop trying. And if we bother to share.

William Edmondson knew the secret: Giving is art.

Rheta Grimsley Johnsonwho grew up in Montgomery, AL is a syndicated columnist.
To find out more about Grimsley Johnson and her books, visit

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