Elijah Pierce: An American Journey

Elijah Pierce: An American Journey

Article by  Jeffrey Wolf 

The exhibition, Elijah Pierce: An American Journey, curated by Tim Keny and Dr. John Moe, is comprised of 40 select carvings by Elijah Pierce, created between 1925-1975. The exhibition was on view at the Canton Museum of Art, 1001 Market Avenue, North, Canton, Ohio 44702, from November 24, 2017 to March 4, 2018.

I arrived in Canton on a snowy December day, with my wife Jeany, to revisit the work of our dear friend, Elijah Pierce, whom I met for the first time more than 45 years ago. In addition to those works loaned by museums, many of the carvings in the show came from the collections of people with close ties to Pierce from his days in Columbus, Ohio. Several of the carvings, owned by fellow church members, were not known outside the Columbus community until recently.

The Canton Museum, not far from The Football Hall of Fame, is in a multi-purpose facility called the Cultural Center for the Arts. Before the evening opening, I walked into the spacious open gallery, and was greeted by Pierce’s most famous group of carvings, The Book of Wood (1932), which is made up of seven panels with 33 scenes depicting Pierce’s interpretation of the time Christ lived on earth. I felt a rush of energy and a great joy to be among these pieces again.

To witness the spirited and diverse turnout at the show’s opening was encouraging for those of us who appreciate the world of self-taught art. It was also heartening since Canton, a city with demographics of almost 25 percent African American, got behind the show financially and with tremendous outreach, thanks in large part to the inspiring work of prominent attorney Judith E. Barnes Lancaster and the Women of “Still I Rise” Book Club.

Many were astonished when I mentioned knowing the artist. It was in 1971, as a college sophomore, that I first met Elijah Pierce (1892-1984). He was sitting alone in The Ohio State University’s Hopkins Hall Art Gallery surrounded by walls of painted wood-relief and bas-relief carvings. Many of these same pieces were on display in the Canton Museum: Your Life Is a Book and Every Day Is a Page, Slavery Time, and Horse Racing, for example. I was a film/photography major but I often walked through the art building on my way to class. On this day I never made it to Botany. Pierce spent three hours as my personal guide around the gallery telling me stories of religious parables, personal adventures, American history and other topics that I would ask him to retell on many occasions after that first encounter.

Not only was he a woodcarver and lay minister but he was also a barber by trade. From that day on, I developed a relationship with Pierce and would visit him in the barbershop and his adjacent gallery as often as my university schedule would allow, photographing him and documenting his work. As with many self-taught artists, Pierce was encouraged by other artists, in particular Boris Gruenwald, a Yugoslavian graduate sculpture student at Ohio State, and sculptor Michael Hall.

Later, I continued to advocate for him in the nascent self-taught art community, with Phyllis Kind in New York City and Janet Fleisher in Philadelphia, for shows and representation. The watershed moment came with his inclusion in the 1982 exhibition, Black Folk Art in America 1930-1980, at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Simultaneously, the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery mounted a one-man show for him. Also in 1982, I nominated Pierce and he was selected as one of 15 master traditional American artists to receive the prestigious National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship.

The roots of Pierce’s mastery can be traced back to his childhood. He was born on a farm in Baldwyn, Miss., on March 5, 1892, the youngest son to a father believed to be a former slave. Elijah was born with a veil over his face, which was thought to be an omen. His father was a church deacon, and from an early age Pierce’s mother had felt that her son’s calling to religion was prophesied. He began carving at an early age when his father gave him his first pocketknife.

In 1982, I went to visit Pierce, and together we laid out his journey north from Baldwyn. Leaving Columbus equipped with names and addresses, I searched out relatives along his migration path, in Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama, photographing these people, some with works by Pierce. I stopped in towns where, in the late 1910s and early 1920s, Pierce lived a hobo-like existence hitching rides on boxcars and working as an itinerant laborer for the railroad.

He was known to be quite athletic and very interested in baseball. You can get a sense of his youthful experiences in Elijah Escapes the Mob. This is how he told me the story: “While playing in a baseball game between two Negro teams in Tupelo, Miss., on the 4th of July, a white man was killed. A colored boy had done it, and they were looking for a Negro who looked like him.” This remarkable narrative depicts the elements associated with the mob violence that often led to catastrophic results. The carving illustrates five representations of Pierce’s story. First, he’s chased by a mob, holding guns and rifles, and with dogs; then he’s taken to jail where the sheriff realizes they have the wrong man. Then, he’s told to get out of town to protect himself. In the next two images he runs, and he goes so fast he loses his cap and has to tell the rabbits to get out of the way. The carving is direct and easy to understand.

After his first wife died, Pierce took the railroad to Danville, Ill., where he worked as a barber. There he met Cornelia Houston who became his second wife. Since Cornelia was from Columbus, they ultimately moved there.

During the late 1920s, Pierce carved a small elephant as a gift for Cornelia’s birthday. She liked it so much that he promised her an entire zoo. For Pierce, these individual animal carvings had their own story. They represented either the beasts from the Book of Genesis, or creatures from the folktales of Pierce’s youth.

The many narrative carvings he made were used for religious instruction. Pierce and his wife Cornelia would set up shop at county fairs wearing robes and using school pointers to preach the meaning, morals and parables in the works. The images and the way they were laid out are reminiscent of illustrated bibles, popular in the 1930s and ‘40s.

In this current exhibition, many of his well-known religious pieces are included. Seeing The Wise and Foolish Virgins and The Man with the Clean and Soiled Heart brought me back to the first time I laid eyes on this piece – it was one of my favorite Pierce carvings. I am struck by the white painted virgins and silver lamps that immediately draw the viewer in, similar to the larger diptychs that he used when preaching. His genius is to relate all the aspects of the narrative in such a clean and elegant way, giving each panel more individual meaning and appeal. In this case, the theme is the just rewards of faith and vigilance. Other themes that he regularly carved deal with human struggle and the wish for redemption.

When I first went into his barbershop on East Long Street, I realized it was clearly a neighborhood meeting place. Young boys were getting buzz cuts under their parents’ watchful eyes alongside older customers who would come not only for haircuts but to discuss the news or gossip of the day. Many black barbershops became places where African Americans met to organize protest campaigns and discuss racial politics. Pierce’s commentary of the time is reflected in his piece Barbershop and the Fight Against Evil. This autobiographical piece shows him as the barber, the storyteller and the carver. The lower reliefs, in a method he often used, show a big cat attacking horses in the field or forest. This is a nod to the survival of the fittest.

Pierce’s secular carvings, often depicting well known African Americans, show his love of baseball, boxing, comic strips and popular culture. They also reflect his interest in national politics and his appreciation for American heroes. Through his carvings Pierce told his own life story and chronicled the African-American experience.

He also carved stories with universal themes, presenting an “Everyman” teaching, as evidenced in his carving Universal Man. According to Pierce, this figure represents not Christ but the image of Everyman. Pierce’s belief that everything in life is connected makes this work particularly meaningful. Pierce encloses the space with symbols of heaven and earth, with the central figure reaching out and embracing the universe. The large eyes, disproportionate to the rest of the face, powerfully lure us into this carving.

In his later carvings, Pierce became more of an overt commentator of his times. For the piece, Watergate, he takes on the issues revolving around Vietnam, Watergate, and the killings at Kent State and Jackson State. He tells us that God and liberty are watching and morality is under attack. All this while Nixon stands looking out from the Capitol.

In Nixon Being Driven from the White House, Woodward and Bernstein and burglars are chasing Nixon with guns and tapes. There is much irony and humor in the work as well. His color palette is more garish in portraying excitement and movement. In much of his later work, Pierce drops the multiple panels, and in an almost elliptical way weaves all the thoughts into one scene.

In Louis vs. Braddock, Pierce depicts the 1937 Heavy-Weight Boxing Championship fight in Chicago, between the African American boxer Joe Louis and James Braddock, an Irish American fighter from New York. The attendance that night was 45,000, half of which were African Americans rooting for their champion, Joe Louis. Louis beat Braddock in the 8th round, and the win was heard on radios around the country – a boost to the African American community.

Pierce seldom distinguished the race of his figures, though sometimes race was implicit. He may have been practicing the “racial etiquette” of his past. In this case both fighters are the natural color of the dark wood, though one was obviously white. The championship fight scene, while not particularly violent, is reminiscent of the posters plastered on the streets advertising fights of that time. Unlike many of his religious diptychs, this carving is a one-off, not a parable or moral for some bigger idea. Its clarity of composition allows for the movement and narrative to work together to create a memorable moment in time.

Walking through this exhibition, one can see that Pierce has left behind a great legacy of teaching, preaching and artistry. Excellent wall plaques give background information. Included in this exhibition is material that I filmed in 1973 and 1982, which presents a visual history of the artist and his times. Each painting beckons the viewer, and one can imagine hearing the artist’s voice ever so faintly in the gallery.

According to Tom Armstrong of the Whitney Museum, “Pierce’s strength is based on his religion and his concept of the importance of the individual. He reduces what he wants to say to the simplest forms and compositions. They are decorative, direct, bold and amusing. He uses glitter and all kinds of devices to make his message clear. It gives his work an immediacy that’s very appealing.”

Elijah Pierce died May 7, 1984. Although much was written about the impact he made with his art, the people who knew him said that what they will remember most is the kind, gentle and humorous man who was a friend, a spiritual adviser, and a mentor to so many.

Personally, he was someone who opened up a world to me by sharing his experiences and perspectives. Elijah Pierce’s American Journey is a dream fulfilled. He achieved what he set out to do both in the community around him and in the heavens above.

JEFFREY WOLF is a New York writer, director and film editor. His 2008 documentary film, James Castle: Portrait of an Artist, portrays Castle’s life and creative process, as told by family members, artists and members of the deaf community. His newest documentary, Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts, will premier during the opening of Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum on September 28, 2018.

As seen in the Folk Art Messenger:

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