Folk Art Exhibit Features Historic Woodcarvings By Elijah Pierce
The new exhibition Elijah Pierce: An American Journey at the Canton Museum of Art (CMA) celebrates the artwork of one of the most important self-taught, American folk artists of the 20th century: Elijah Pierce (1892 - 1984). Pierce was a prolific African American wood carver known for his brightly painted sculptural panels illustrating biblical stories, moral lessons, historical events, and images from popular culture - a landscape of wood-carved art that is unlike any in America. This exhibit focuses on 39 major works. Featured in the exhibit is Pierce's most ambitious carving, "Book of Wood" (1932), consisting of seven panels with 33 scenes illustrating the years Christ lived on the earth, as well as works depicting segregation, the Vietnam War, Watergate, and Civil Rights, among others. This exhibition is on view November 24, 2017 - March 4, 2018 with a free public reception on Thursday, December 7, 2017 from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.
About The Artist
Elijah Pierce (1892-1984) was a renowned master woodcarver, a humble barber, and a beloved lay minister. He was one of the great American traditional and self-taught artists and storytellers of the 20th century - amassing a body of wood-carved work acclaimed by museums and collections across the country. In a 1979 article from The New York Times Magazine, Dr. Robert Bishop of the Museum of American Folk Art in New York noted, "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."
Pierce was born in a log cabin on the farm owned by his father, a former slave, in Baldwyn, Mississippi. It was a devout Baptist household, where Pierce and his eight siblings read the Bible daily with their parents. Pierce later stated, "My mother and I used to read the Bible every evening after I got through with my chores." This had a great influence upon his life and his carvings.
He began carving at an early age when his father gave him his first pocketknife. By age seven, Pierce was carving little wooden farm animals. His uncle, Lewis Wallace, instructed Pierce in the art of carving - teaching him how to work with wood, what kind of wood to use, and how to enjoy carving.
Pierce attended school through the eighth grade. In his early teens, he decided he didn't want to be a farmer - it was "too long between paydays," Pierce said. He had taken an interest in barbering and began learning the trade at local barbershops.
In 1915, he married his first wife, Zetta Palm, who died shortly afterwards. Two years later Pierce's father passed away. Pierce then left Baldwyn, seeking opportunities in northern cities. He hopped rides on freight trains and even worked as an itinerant laborer for the railroad through Tennessee, Missouri, and Ohio. On a return trip home in 1920, Pierce was ordained and received his preacher's license from his home church of Mt. Zion Baptist Church. Still unsettled in his life, he once again decided to head to the cities in the north. He made his home in Columbus, Ohio, where he married his second wife, Cornelia Houeston, in 1923. She was a devout Christian and had a strong influence on Pierce's life. At first, he worked for another barber and then in 1951 opened his own shop on Long Street in the heart of the city's African American community (his shop is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Long Street Gallery).
With his new wife and trade, Pierce lost interest in the nomadic lifestyle and rediscovered his love of woodcarving. 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.
In 1932, Pierce completed the Book of Wood, which he considered his best work. As a lay minister, a number of his later works were also inspired by biblical stories. His early work also depicted African-inspired fables, Freemasonry symbols, African American heroes, a veritable "Noah's Ark" of animals, and his early life. His later carvings also reflected his interest in national politics, civil rights, as well as his love of baseball, boxing, and the movies.
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. Within a few years Pierce became known both nationally and internationally in the world of folk art - participating in exhibitions at 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 Naïve 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 select carvings by Elijah Pierce in this exhibition fully represent his narrative carvings created between c. 1925-1975. Several of these carvings have not been widely exhibited because they were owned by fellow church members of Pierce in Columbus and were not known outside of his community until recent years.
About the Canton Museum of Art
The Canton Museum of Art (CMA) is one of Ohio's premier museums for an exceptional visual arts experience. CMA is recognized for powerful national touring exhibits; dynamic CMA-original exhibits; an unrivaled Permanent Collection of American watercolors and contemporary ceramics; and innovative education outreach programs, in-Museum classes, and workshops. CMA is one of only two Stark County museums accredited by the American Alliance of Museums. For more information, including hours, exhibits, classes, and special events, call 330.453.7666, visit www.cantonart.org, Facebook at "Canton Museum of Art," or @CantonMuseum on Twitter.
Admission: Regular admission is $8 Adults; $6, Seniors and Students (with valid I.D.); Museum Members are Free; and Children 12 and under, Free. Tickets are available at the Museum Ticket Office during Museum hours. For group visits, discounts, and tours, please call 330.453.7666 at least two weeks prior to your visit for reservations and/or to request a docent-led tour.