Culture  /  First Person

The Picassos of the American South

William Edmondson and other self-taught artists remind us of how genius somehow finds a way.

... During the last 20 years of his life, Mr. Edmondson earned his living by making cemetery headstones and yard decorations, though his work eventually came to the attention of the art world: In 1937, he became the first Black artist to have a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art. He died in 1951.

... During the last 20 years of his life, Mr. Edmondson earned his living by making cemetery headstones and yard decorations, though his work eventually came to the attention of the art world: In 1937, he became the first Black artist to have a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art. He died in 1951.

Despite the acclaim his work still enjoys in the art world, and despite a huge retrospective in 2000 at the Cheekwood Museum of Art here, William Edmondson is not a household name, even in Nashville. But he may be yet: Cheekwood recently announced a new Edmondson exhibit that will open in August, taking into account new scholarship on his work.

On the very day of my Frist visit, the Nashville Scene published an article about Mr. Edmondson, written by my friend Betsy Phillips, a local historian. During the pandemic quarantines, Betsy had set herself the task of cataloging every Edmondson headstone still standing in historically Black cemeteries in Middle Tennessee that she could find. After I left the Picasso exhibit, I emailed to ask if she had time to take me to see a few of those gravestones.

Betsy’s search was guided partly by incomplete prior cemetery surveys and partly by an intimate understanding of Mr. Edmondson’s style: his unique approach to lettering, the whimsical shapes of the headstones, the platforms where a carving could rest — an angel, perhaps, or a lamb, or a bird — and the particular way lichens grow on the stone stock he habitually used. The fact that lichen patterns on a tombstone is a tell for recognizing the work of one of the greatest stone carvers of Modernism touched me in a way I can’t even explain.

Of all the tombstones we saw that Saturday afternoon, only one still includes the unique carved figure that once rested at the top of most of the stones. The others are gone, the vast majority of them stolen by someone who knew their value, or destroyed by someone who didn’t. For that reason, I’m not identifying the cemeteries we visited.

But even the unadorned stones are clearly marked by the artist’s eyes and hands. “It’s just a little extra than it needs to be,” as Betsy put it. “I think Edmondson wanted to make beautiful things for the people in his neighborhood. That was his main concern. If the beautiful thing you needed was a gravestone, he could do that for you. If the beautiful thing was a birdbath, he made plenty of those. And if the beautiful thing was a sculpture, he made that.”

Even in the context of this originality, generosity and beauty, there’s still a huge challenge inherent in any attempt to catalog Mr. Edmondson’s cemetery pieces. It’s a matter of “trying to bridge this enormous gap of both time and racism,” Betsy said. In an era when a Black man in the Jim Crow South could be lynched for nothing more than looking a white woman directly in the eyes, “You just can’t overestimate how dangerous it was for William Edmondson to be talented and to come to the attention of white people.” Especially when the person most responsible for bringing his work to a national audience was a white photographer named Louise Dahl-Wolfe.

So many of the great self-taught Southern artists faced the same racism and the same dangers, but continued to make remarkable work even so. I’m thinking of the Gee’s Bend Quilting Collective in Boykin, Ala., whose quilts have been the subject of exhibitions in the most prestigious museums in ...