THE ESSENTIAL ELIJAH PIERCE
February 1- March 16
Al Shands and Bill and Lindy Street Galleries, Second Floor
Organized by the Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio
The Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft (KMAC) is pleased to exhibit one of the most significant self-taught artists of the 20th century, Elijah Pierce. Pierce was a prolific African American wood carver known for his brightly painted narrative bas-relief panels illustrating religious scenes and images from popular culture. The Essential Elijah Pierce exhibition is organized by the Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio and is on view during the February celebration of Black History Month from Saturday, February 1st through March 16th.
Elijah Pierce (1892-1984) was born in a log cabin in Baldwyn, Mississippi. His father, a former slave then farmer, and mother reared their nine children in a devout Baptist household where reading the Bible was a daily part of life. Pierce was inspired and instructed by an uncle who taught him the art of carving. By age seven, he was given a pocket knife by his father and he began carving little wooden farm animals. Unlike his siblings, Pierce felt his future was not in farming because “it was too long between paydays. It paid off once a year.” He attended school through the eighth grade and then learned the trade of barbering by observing barbers in Baldwyn.
When Pierce was 25, after the death of his wife and father, he left his rural southern roots and hitched rides north seeking life anew in the city. On a return trip home, Pierce received his preacher’s license following his ordination from his home church of Mt. Zion Baptist. Pierce said, “I was called to preach when I was a young man, but I never wanted to preach. I didn’t feel like I was fit and I didn’t feel like I knew enough and I didn’t feel like I could be obedient enough to preach the gospel to a people.” Still unsettled, Pierce once again left Baldwyn and moved to Danville, Illinois.
While in Danville, Pierce met his soon to be second wife and followed her back to her hometown of Columbus, Ohio and lived there for the next sixty one years. In Columbus, he obtained a job as a barber and in 1951 opened his own shop on Long Street, which is now listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Finally feeling settled, Pierce rediscovered his passion for wood carving and converted a room in his barber shop to a working studio. When he didn’t have customers, he would make carvings, which he freely gave away to admirers or sold for small commissions.
Pierce’s early works were based on ideas from popular culture and consisted of small three-dimensional figures. By the early 1930s, he was carving panels in bas-relief and his subject matter was dominated with biblical scenes. “Every piece of work I got carved,” he said, “is a message, a sermon.” Pierce’s most ambitious wood carving, Book of Wood, was completed over a six-month period in 1932. Book of Wood consists of seven relief carvings representing the seven major churches of Early Christianity, as mentioned in the New Testament Book of Revelation. Thirty-three scenes are depicted representing the thirty-three years Christ lived on the earth. Originally, individual pieces were carved, then mounted on cardboard and seamed together with string to form a large format book. The pieces were later mounted to wood paneling for greater support, giving the piece a three-dimensional form. All of Pierce’s works were painted with bold enamel paint and occasionally embellished with glitter in the final coat to make the scene glisten.
Although he was a wood caver for more than sixty years, it wasn’t until 1971, at the age of 79, that he was given his first solo exhibition at the Ohio State University art gallery. Boris Gruenwald, a Yugoslavian sculptor and OSU graduate student, discovered Pierce’s work in a Columbus YMCA exhibition and arranged for him to show at the college. Within a few years Pierce became known both nationally and internationally in the world of folk art. Pierce participated in exhibitions at galleries such as the Krannert Art Museum, the Phyllis Kind Gallery of New York, the National Museum of American Art, the Renwick Gallery, and the Museum of Modern Art. In 1973, Pierce won first prize in the International Meeting of Naive Art in Zagreb, Yugoslavia. In 1982, his carvings were included in the monumental exhibition Black Folk Art in America 1930 – 1980 organized by the Corcoran Gallery of Art. This exhibit was the turning point for contemporary black folk art. In that same year, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a National Heritage Fellowship as one of 15 master traditional artists. Two years later, Pierce died of a heart attack in Columbus. He was 92.
Elijah Pierce was one of the first African American wood carvers to receive significant recognition during his lifetime. Pierce was a master storyteller and his narrative carvings came to be regarded as important additions to American folk art.
The Essential Elijah Pierce exhibition at KMAC includes 42 carvings of wood relief panels and sculptural tableaux ranging in subject matter of biblical stories, moral lessons, autobiographical tales, animals, historical events, and portraits of historical figures.