The first African American artist to have a one-man show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York was Nashville-born sculptor William Edmondson (1874-1951).

Edmondson was born in the Hillsboro area of Nashville. He worked for decades as a laborer on the railroads, a janitor at Women’s Hospital, and in other similar jobs before discovering his talent for sculpture in 1929. Edmondson told the Nashville Tennessean that his talent and passion were God-given:

“God appeared at the head of my bed and talked to me, like a natural man, concerning the talent of cutting stone He was about to bestow. He talked so loud He woke me up. He told me He had something for me.”

A prolific sculptor, Edmondson worked exclusively with limestone, and he created angels, women, doves, turtles, rabbits, and other “varmints.” He also made tombstones. Edmondson never learned to read or write, and he called many of his works “mirkels” because they were inspired by God.

A limestone carved folk-style rabbit sculpture by William Edmonson.

Rabbit (ca. 1940) by William Edmonson at the Smithsonian Institute. Photo © Cliff, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

In the 1930s, Louise Dahl-Wolfe, a photographer for Harper’s Bazaar magazine, brought Edmondson and his work to the attention of Alfred Barr, the director of the Museum of Modern Art. Barr and other trustees of the museum admired what they termed as Edmondson’s “modern primitive” work, and they invited him to display a one-man show at the museum in 1938. In 1941, the Nashville Art Museum put on an exhibit of Edmondson’s work.

Edmondson continued to work until the late 1940s, when he became ill with cancer. After his death in 1951 he was buried in an unmarked grave at Mount Ararat Cemetery in Nashville. The city park at 17th Avenue North and Charlotte Avenue is named in honor of Edmondson.

Some of Edmondson’s work is on display at the Cheekwood Museum.


Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Nashville.