A “holy grail” of American folk art, hidden in plain sight

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John Foster was driving through St. Louis in 2019 when he spotted something unusual on the porch of a house just east of Forest Park.

“I thought to myself, ‘This doesn’t look like a simple concrete lawn ornament,” said Foster, St. Louis-based author, historian and art enthusiast.

He couldn’t stop then, but the remarkable sculpture – a pair of seated stone women, their bodies speckled with moss – stuck in his mind. He returned a few weeks later and knocked on the door.

“Can I take a closer look? He asked the responding couple, Sally Bliss and her husband, Jim Connett.

He leaned over and examined it. The faces were obscured by the green moss, but the distinctive little mouths resting directly under the vertical noses, the almost closed eyes, and the contrast of the surfaces between the flatness of the dress and the downy down left no doubt: it was l work of stone sculptor William Edmondson, the first black artist to have a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.

“It was like finding the holy grail,” Foster said. “Edmondson worked in Nashville, so who ever dreamed that a play would be in St. Louis? “

Bliss, 84, whose first husband Anthony A. Bliss inherited the sculpture from her art-collecting parents, was delighted at the find. (Anthony Bliss’ father, Cornelius N. Bliss Jr., was the brother of MoMA founder Lillie P. Bliss.) Sally Bliss knew the piece had been sculpted by an African-American sculptor – she believed that his name could have been Robertson – but hadn’t been aware of its full meaning.

Foster encouraged the couple to place the work in a museum Рand since Bliss, a former principal dancer of the Metropolitan Opera and the New York City Opera, had lived in New York for over 50 years, Foster suggested the American Folk Art Museum . He contacted a friend, Val̩rie Rousseau, curator at the museum, who flew to Saint-Louis to examine him.

Rousseau suspected that the 10-inch-high sculpture was one of Edmondson’s “Martha and Mary” sculptures, whose whereabouts have not been known for decades. It was last presented at an exhibition at the Jeu de Paume museum in Paris in 1938 entitled “Three centuries of American art”. Then it kind of disappeared from the map.

Even though it was covered in green moss, Rousseau said, “the details were clear enough – like a notch near the knee – to indicate that it was the same as an image of the coin from the catalog of the Jeu de Paume exhibition 1938 “.

What had happened, she discovered, was that while the 1938 catalog identified the owner as Mrs. Cornelius N. Bliss Jr. – Sally Bliss’ stepmother – when the image had been reprinted in Edmund L. Fuller’s 1973 book “Visions in Stone: The Sculpture of William Edmondson”, it bore a new caption: “Owner Unknown”. (The book, with its first monograph of Edmondson’s work, has become a benchmark for scholars of the artist.)

“MoMA, which hosted the Paris show, provided these images to Fuller without also providing the owner of the room,” she said. “So there was this gap. “

Although Edmondson featured works in the exhibition in Paris, national and international interest in his art was fleeting. He was the subject of only two solo exhibitions during his life, one at MoMA in 1937 and the other at the Nashville Art Gallery in 1941. He died in 1951 in Nashville after experiencing difficulties. financials in his later years.

Edmondson’s work never brought in large sums of money during his lifetime, and many of the roughly 300 pieces he created during his roughly 15-year career have ended up in gardens and backyards. people – exactly the kind of outdoor art that appeals to another artist.

Brian Donnelly, known professionally as KAWS, has been called in to help – he’s also a board member of the American Folk Art Museum. He thought it was important for the museum to have, and it’s a gift promised to the KAWS museum in the next 20 years. He bought the room and he was transported to New York. (KAWS and the museum declined to disclose the price.)

Over the summer it was cleaned and preserved. The sculpture will be on display along with other works by Edmondson at the American Folk Art Museum in “Multitudes,” a museum’s 60th anniversary exhibit that begins January 21, 2022.

“As an admirer of William Edmondson’s work, I am happy that this sculpture has a home at the American Folk Art Museum,” KAWS said in a statement, “where a wider audience could also discover the importance of this incredible artist. “

A striking aspect of the sculpture, which fuses everyday and Biblical themes, is the almost closed eyes of the women and the passive posture of the students listening to a teacher, said Rousseau – especially Martha, who is normally presented as busy preparing music. food for the guests of the Last Supper.

“It could be a way to illustrate the excesses of our society,” she said. “Maybe that’s Edmondson’s take on wealth – why should we ask for more when we’ve had enough? The important thing is to listen when Jesus is trying to teach us something about life, not to offer an extra big banquet for all the guests who are coming.

Edmondson, who was self-taught, was born on a plantation near Nashville, Tenn., To once enslaved parents. He began carving in 1934, when he was around 60, after reporting seeing a vision from God, who told him to start working on a gravestone.

He carved tombstones from scraps of discarded limestone from demolished buildings, as well as lawn ornaments, birdbaths, and decorative carvings. Her work often featured Biblical figures – sisters Martha and Mary were among her favorites – as well as angels, animals, and community leaders. He forged his own scissors from railroad spikes and sold gravestones to neighbors for a few dollars.

It caught the attention of the art world around 1936 when a neighbor, writer Sidney Mttron Hirsch, stumbled upon Edmondson’s extensive collection of sculptures. A pair of Hirsch’s friends, Alfred and Elizabeth Starr, introduced Edmondson to several of their artist friends, including Louise Dahl-Wolfe, photographer for Harper’s Bazaar magazine in New York. She brought Edmondson’s work to the attention of Alfred H. Barr Jr., the director of the Museum of Modern Art.

One of Edmondson’s sculptures, “Boxer,” sold for $ 785,000 at Christie’s in 2016, setting a record not only for Edmondson’s work, but for any work of brut art.

So, could there be more Edmondsons tucked away in the Midwest?

“Over the years I have heard collectors say that it was very possible that there was an Edmondson garden piece in someone’s backyard that was covered in weeds and stuck in the ground.” , Foster said. “Who knows? I never dreamed that one of his works would somehow make it to Saint-Louis by magic.


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