Published: October 9, 2012
A humble barber, dedicated lay preacher and master woodcarver, Elijah Pierce (1892‱984), was one of the great self-taught artists of the Twentieth Century. He brought soul and skill to carvings of religious narratives, African-inspired fables, African American heroes, current events and a veritable “Noah’s Ark” of animals.
Pierce’s wry wit, keen insight and wide interests encouraged him to broaden his subject matter and refine his woodworking style. His oeuvre eventually gained national recognition for its personal, whimsical and spiritual qualities.
Born on a Mississippi farm, the youngest son of a former slave and church deacon, Pierce began carving as a youngster when his father gave him a pocketknife. By age seven he was carving little wooden farm animals.
Mentored by an uncle who was a chair and basket maker, Pierce learned what kind of wood to use, techniques for shaping his pieces and how to enjoy carving. While roaming the woods and fishing in a nearby creek he whittled animals or other small figurines from found wood scraps. Pierce described himself as “the little black sheep, a little oddball who didn’t play much with the other kids,” but he began a lifelong practice of giving away his carvings, at first to compatriots at school and later to people who admired his work or could benefit from its lessons. It was a way, he said, that he could “share a bit of himself.” Pierce also enjoyed baseball and dancing.
Seeking to avoid becoming a farmer, Pierce took up barbering, a trade that gave him a degree of independence, the ability to get a job almost anywhere †and the opportunity to carve in down times. In his early 20s, he was happily married to Zetta Palm, but after his wife died in 1917, he lived an itinerant existence, riding the rails, working at odd jobs and whittling with a pocketknife on the side. Reportedly, he was run out of one town by a lynch mob. Encouraged by his mother to follow his religious calling, in 1920, Pierce received a preacher’s license in the Baptist church.
Eventually deciding to join the migration to cities in the North, he found his way to Danville, Ill., in the early 1920s, and then Columbus, Ohio, in 1924. While living in Columbus for six decades until his death in 1984, he gained renown for his endearing, idiosyncratic wood carvings. Pierce’s artistic originality, religious beliefs and the eloquence of his pieces convey today the same wise and compelling messages as they did when he created them in his adopted hometown years ago.
As part of the Columbus Bicentennial Celebration, the Columbus Museum of Art has organized “The Essential Elijah Pierce,” a comprehensive survey of the museum’s extensive Pierce collection, including new acquisitions shown for the first time. It is on view through February 16 and there will be a catalog.
In 1924, after marrying Cornelia Houeston of Columbus, Pierce began working as a barber and minister and started creating multipaneled painted carvings, like a huge crucifixion, to illustrate his sermons. “Every piece of wood I carve is a message, a sermon,” he once remarked.
By the early 1930s, he was mounting his three-dimensional figures on cardboard or wooden backgrounds. The “Book of Wood,” which he considered his best work, was completed around this time. Telling the story of Jesus in individual carved bas reliefs, Pierce used it in preaching the word of God to diverse audiences.
Religious subjects were only part of his output. When Cornelia liked a small elephant he created, he promised her an entire zoo. These early pieces, such as “Little Elephant,” circa 1923, had their own back stories, often representing beasts from Genesis or from folktales of Pierce’s youth.
During the 1930s and 1940s, Pierce preached around the Midwest and South at summer carnivals and regional fairs, surrounded by various carved and painted panels that illustrated the bible stories, moral lessons and parables that were subjects of his sermons. Well-known biblical figures †Job, Jonah, Noah and Samson †that he carved were to him real and vital elements in his religious heritage and his ministerial mission.
Notable from this period is “Crucifixion,” begun in the 1930s and reworked in the 1970s, a multifigured relief celebrating Christ’s death on the cross and his resurrection †a popular subject for Twentieth Century folk artists. To Pierce, it represented God’s message, worked through and made visible by his hands.
Similarly, “Pilgrim’s Progress” depicts a pilgrim pushing a heavy burden uphill on the road of life, encouraged by the beckoning figure of Jesus. Numerous images of vice and temptation seek to lure the hero from the straight, steep and narrow, but the virtuous pilgrim forges ahead.
Pierce frequently found subjects for his knife in comic strips, newspaper and magazine advertisements and a variety of photographs, as well as Sunday school books and illustrated bibles. One familiar figure on view is a black, pugnacious-looking “Popeye.” “Pierce was a great recycler of the visual elements of our popular culture,” says folk art historian Michael D. Hall, who curated the show.
Pierce expanded his carvings into secular subjects, prompted by his love of baseball, boxing, harness racing, dancing, comics and movies, as well as his interest in politics and appreciation for American heroes who fought for justice and liberty. His depictions of Marian Anderson, Archie Griffin, Joe Louis and Jesse Owens memorialized his enduring heroes. Vignettes of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war reflected his awareness of current events. Pierce’s symbol-filled “Watergate” of around 1975 demonstrates how deeply that national trauma affected him.
Birds and animals are well represented in the exhibition, ranging from individual cranes and buzzards to monkeys and a dinosaur, culminating in “Noah’s Ark,” overflowing with pairs of widely diverse species. Pierce’s affection for the animal kingdom and dangers posed to its members is suggested by a buffoonlike hunter with a large, menacing rifle at his side.
In 1951, following the death of his second wife, Pierce opened his own barbershop on Long Street in Columbus, which became a gathering place for conversation and discussions of the news of the day, as well as a gallery for his woodcarvings. He was also a dedicated Mason.
With the encouragement of his third wife, Estelle Greene, Pierce’s work as an artist and minister continued to grow. His pieces of the 1950s and 1960s featured more complex compositions, more rounded forms and more deeply incised objects.
Throughout his life, Pierce carved panels of mottos and sayings as written text. “Your Life is a Book” illustrates the truism that “Your Life is a Book and Every Day is a Page.” Versions of this sign hung in the artist’s barbershop. “The images that took shape and the point of his knife and brush were folk art in the truest and best sense of the term,” according to Hall.
In a page in Pierce’s book, late in life in the 1970s he took on as an apprentice and “curator” of the gallery in his barbershop one young Leon Almon, an out-of-work fellow worshipper at the Gay Tabernacle Baptist Church. Almon went on to shape his own career as a carver of brightly painted reliefs featuring dramatic Christian, historical and political themes.
Pierce constantly drew on his life experiences in his work. Curator Hall recalls that in their numerous conversations the artist frequently invoked “Obey God and Live,” in which Pierce recalled how as a boy he neglected his bible study one night and was struck down by the hand of the Almighty for his disobedience. Here, years later, “The artist transformed his own biography into a universal allegory of transgression, retribution, forgiveness and redemption,” says Hall.
Pierce continued illustrating biblical stories to the end of his life. At the age of 87, he created a powerful evocation of “Abraham Sacrifices his Son,” a three-dimensional vignette made of painted wood heightened overall with red glitter and plastic plant material stones. Museum executive Tom Armstrong could well have been referring to this work when he said, “Pierce’s strength is based on his religion and his concept of the importance of the individual. He reduces what he wants to say to the simplest forms and compositions. They are decorative, direct, bold and amusing. He uses glitter and all kinds of devices to make his message clear. It gives his work an immediacy that’s very appealing.”
A quarter-century before his death, Pierce grappled with issues of mortality in “Father Time Racing” †showing white-bearded, scythe-toting figures pursuing myriad people representing the diversity of the human race. In “Place of My Birth,” created when he was 85, Pierce harked back to his humble origins on his family’s farm in Baldwyn, Miss. This nostalgic work is replete with log cabins, farm animals, trees and other sights reflecting his formative rural experiences.
Discovered in the late 1960s by an art world newly interested in the work of self-taught painters and sculptors, Pierce became something of a celebrity not only in Columbus, but nationally. His work was exhibited in New York City galleries, the Renwick Gallery and what is now the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Folk art authority Robert Bishop wrote in 1979 that “There are 500 woodcarvers working today in the United States who are technically as proficient as Pierce, but none can equal the power of Pierce’s personal vision.”
To honor its adopted son and his achievements, in 2000 Columbus State Community College erected a bronze statue of Pierce on the northeast corner of Long and Washington Streets. Sculpted by Steve Weizman, it depicts the deeply religious artist standing, in deep concentration, carving with his hands cupped around his work as though he is praying.
Upon his death, much was said and written about the impact Pierce’s art had on so many people. Those who knew him said what they would remember most is what a kind, gentle and humorous man he was, a man with a gift for friendship, a spiritual advisor and a mentor to many.
As owner of the largest public collection of Elijah Pierce’s carvings in this country, the Columbus Museum is uniquely qualified to exhibit the wide range of this exceptional folk artist’s achievements. This modest, gifted man, armed with carving skills since childhood and guided by his religious convictions, bequeathed a legacy of artwork of timeless good humor, moral messages and universal appeal. He will endure as one of the leading figures among America’s self-taught artists.
The Columbus Museum of Art is at 400 East Broad Street. For information, www.columbusmuseum.org or 614-221-4848.
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