Part diary, part devotional, part American history. Elijah Pierce woodcarvings are many things.
Deeply personal, deeply spiritual, deeply patriotic.
Elijah Pierce’s (1892–1984) painted woodcarvings were many things, foremost among them a window into his mind and soul, representations of what he believed to be important.
Born on a farm in Baldwyn, Mississippi, Pierce joined the Great Migration settling in Columbus, Ohio in 1923. His own father was born enslaved and sold away from his mother by the age of four. A personal encounter with a life-threatening white mob in 1912 and the racist murder of his older brother in 1916 pushed him out of Mississippi.
Considering his background, the patriotism of Pierce’s work proves difficult to comprehend.
The great volume of religious imagery makes sense. Pierce was a licensed preacher, traveling across the Midwest and South as an itinerant preacher between stints at various barbershops in Columbus–he earned his living as a barber.
The figurative carvings of fellow Black migrants are easy to understand, as are the carvings of animals and sports figures.
But the patriotism, from a man who personally experienced America at its racist, violent, white supremacist, absolute worst, how did that flourish within him?
It is undeniably there in carvings with titles such as The Statue of Liberty, USA, The White House, John F. Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln. Not all of Pierce’s carvings glorified the country, he was particularly pointed in his criticism of Richard Nixon in numerous pieces responding to Watergate and sharing his own experience in Elijah Escapes the Mob, but on balance, he offers a portrait of America to be loved, not loathed.
That is a question to sort out for yourself.
“Elijah Pierce was as principled as he was creative,” Zoé Whitley, co-curator for the Barnes Foundation’s landmark “Elijah Pierce’s America” exhibition (on view in late 2020), told me. “While it might be easy to dissociate the secular carvings from the sacred iconography, all forms of subject matter are rooted in Pierce being compelled to express himself in different registers, no differently from any other artist.”
Whitley edited the exceptional full-color, 208-page exhibition catalog, a treasure for any art library.
Using wood, corrugated cardboard, crepe paper, house paint, aluminum foil, glitter and rhinestones, Pierce created extraordinary objects expressing his faith, values and perspective on the world.
This includes The Book of Wood (1932), on view here, his remarkable volume of biblical scenes for which Pierce is best known, featuring seven large, didactic, polychrome reliefs.
“Pierce used no preparatory sketches, but worked from his own visualizations (and) our research made it beautifully clear that the conception of The Book of Wood was very much a collaboration between Pierce and his first wife, Cornelia Houeston Pierce–she even painted some of the works,” Whitley said.
Elijah Pierce overcomes history
Elijah Pierce didn’t have the advantage of art school. Growing up in the Jim Crow South, he didn’t even go to high school. He didn’t have gallery representation, a publicist or access to the elite New York art “scene.”
He created his historic body of work in moments between cutting hair.
It’s extraordinary so much of his work survives.
The same can be said of many self-taught artists working far outside the mainstream. Bill Traylor, Henry Darger, the quilters of Gee’s Bend. Against all odds, their artwork was “discovered,” preserved and passed up through cultural channels to national prominence.
But how many others were lost? How many brilliant artists, musicians, poets and performers were unable to escape America’s systemic racism and saw their contributions either erased or snuffed out before they could blossom? Outside of the visual arts, how many writers, scientists, thinkers, engineers, doctors, lawyers, educators and statesmen who didn’t have the privilege of being born white saw their potential wasted?
Sacrificing the incalculable human potential of hundreds of millions of minority citizens at the alter of racism will always stand as one of America’s most terrible tragedies.
How many unforgettable paintings? How many unforgettable songs? How many life-saving medicines and innovative ideas squandered?
“Elijah Pierce’s America” remains on view at the Barnes through January 10, 2021. The Barnes has produced a comprehensive catalogue for the exhibition adding a significant new contribution to the understanding of this artist. The Columbus Museum of Art possesses the largest permanent collection of his work.