Published: September 15, 2020
Some preachers teach sermons from the pulpit, others carve them from wood. Enter Elijah Pierce, the son of two former slaves who turned his Columbus, Ohio, barber shop into a gallery with lively folk carvings that were emblematic of his lifetime and beliefs. Pierce is the subject of a retrospective exhibition at the Barnes Foundation titled “Elijah Pierce’s America” (September 27 to January 10, 2021) — the first major show on the artist outside of Columbus, Ohio in 25 years — curated by Dr Nancy Ireson and Zoe Whitley. We sat down with Ireson to shave a little off the top and see what’s inside.
In what ways was Elijah Pierce a chronicler of American life?
Pierce covered almost a century of life in the United States: its highs and lows, and everything between. From his experience of the migration north, to the fight for civil rights in the 1960s; from the Second World War to the Watergate scandal. Pierce captured the world around him in his vivid and relatable carvings.
He was not the first barber/carver. How familiar was he with the work of other folk artists?
Though Pierce was a very active member of many communities – his Church community, the clients who frequented his barbershop, and the brotherhood of Prince Hall Freemasons – for most of his career he was unconnected with the art world. In 1982, his work was featured in an important traveling exhibition titled “Black Folk Art in America” at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC, that included pieces by artists such as William Edmondson and Sister Gertrude Morgan. However, it is unlikely that he was influenced by the figures with whom museums and galleries have often categorized him, as his art developed independently for most of his career.
How integral is the aspect of community in Pierce’s work?
Above all, Pierce used his art to educate those around him in the service of building a better world. It is clear that he had a strong sense of right and wrong, and that his art was in many ways an extension of his preaching. He likened his carvings to “sermons in wood;” as a preacher, he sought to enlighten his communities, who in turn became his primary audience.
Give me an examples of a work and its sermon.
The theme of earthly suffering leading to divine reward features frequently in Pierce’s art. In an America that was largely segregated, the need to keep the faith was key, and so he showed how God had even put biblical figures to the test. One free-standing carving in the show depicts the “Sacrifice of Isaac,” with Abraham readying to sacrifice his only son, before God provided a ram as an alternative offering.
I understand he was a local celebrity?
Many people visited the barbershop on Long Street to see Pierce’s works – by the end of his life it was essentially a gallery – but he attracted press attention as early as the 1940s. With his second wife, Cornelia Pierce, he traveled and presented his art at fairs in locations that included Omaha. When Cornelia Pierce’s ill health prevented their traveling, they would give demonstrations of the “Book of Wood” at their home. This was his most treasured work, comprising of seven large carved pages, that detail many old and new testament stories.
How important was the theme of racial justice to Pierce and where within the works in the show do we explore that?
Pierce experienced racial injustice first-hand: his father had been enslaved; his brother was shot by a group of white men who had tried to molest his sister-in-law; and as a young man Pierce himself was arrested when a white mob mistook him for a wanted murderer. His belief in the need for a more equitable society played out in his work. He aligned patriotism with social justice, in works that show black figures in uniform, and he celebrated figures including Dr Martin Luther King Jr and John F. Kennedy.
Did he repeat any images more than others?
In our exhibition we show several versions of a scene that Pierce titled “Slavery Time.” It recalls the stories his father told him about his experience of enslavement: the indignities of the auction block, faces peering out of fields of cotton, Uncle Sam’s false promise of land and a mule. He also made many carved animals: giraffes, crocodiles, tigers…it was difficult to select just a few of these to feature in the show!
There’s a chapter in the catalog on how Pierce impacted museum practice. Tell me about that.
The Columbus Museum of Art collected Pierce’s work in his lifetime, and they showed his work in their galleries often; Michael Hall’s text in the catalog takes us through that journey, from the viewpoint of a curator who knew the artist and who helped to steward his legacy.
What’s your favorite work in the show?
One highlight of the exhibition is a large-scale dollhouse that Pierce made for his mother that we have borrowed from a private collection. It even includes a little carved representation of her on the second floor. Pierce explained, “I love my mother…I would give her anything. Of course, it was only a playhouse. But I would have given her anything she wanted.” The piece shows the artist’s versatility – he made free-standing works as well as relief carvings – and it gives us an insight into Pierce’s personal life.
What about the greatest masterwork in the show?
The “Book of Wood” was Pierce’s most highly prized work, and we are delighted to have the piece on loan from the Columbus Museum of Art. But we are also very fortunate to have another major piece on loan from a private collection titled “Bible Stories,” that shows us how Pierce originally arranged his carvings onto screens, in this instance to make a diptych that is almost 5 feet tall. It includes many smaller works that address topics ranging from David and Goliath to a bird’s-eye view of a revival meeting. To make it, he used materials including glitter and crepe paper, and its scale and ambition are simply breathtaking.
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