IN 1938, about five years after William Edmondson, a semiliterate man in a small black community outside Nashville, began carving limestone chunks, the prestigious Museum of Modern Art in New York gave him a one-man show. He was the first black to be so honored. Edmondson's untaught, artful, instinctively primitive works caused critics to crow over sophisticated contemporary ``primitivist'' efforts from sculptors who labored long in creative throes to bring forth their simplified forms. One of the critics declared that this naif's blocky figures would ``not be out of place with [Constantin] Brancusi,'' one of the heralds of modernism in sculpture.
Recently, I saw Edmondson's ``Sleeping Girl'' in the Newark (N.J.) Museum's excellent collection of work by black artists. His sculpture had lost none of its appeal. What struck me was that the piece would also not be out of place among the remarkable sculptures of the early Coptic Christians. To me, Edmondson has more in common with them than with Brancusi.
Edmondson had no art training and seems to have shown no previous inclination to carving. He began sculpting in his 50s, unlike many naifs who have begun their work much earlier in their lives. It is also unusual that he turned to carving; for many primitive artists, paint is the preferred medium.
Egyptian Coptic sculpture was mainly done on the Nile, upstream from the Hellenistic, aristocratic metropolises, in small Christian villages or in monastic communities by local artisans who had no pretensions to high art. It was done for the relatively poor folk of the early Christian churches. The concepts of resurrection and eternal life were central to these Christian worshipers. Death did more than mark the end of life, it marked the beginning of everlasting joy, consequently gravestones were important as elements of devotion and praise, not as status symbols or monuments to grief.
AND so it was with William Edmondson when he had what he was convinced was a vision from God: ``I was out in the driveway with some old pieces of stone when I heard a voice telling me to pick up my tools and start to work on a tombstone. I looked up in the sky and right there in the noon daylight He hung a tombstone out for me to make.''
A niece related that ``everyone just laughed at him. We thought it was the funniest thing.'' They weren't laughing at his vision, or his religious feeling because religion was deeply ingrained in the whole family. But they laughed at Uncle Bill tapping away at stones from the rubble of old houses.
Like the Coptic artisans, Edmondson worked with soft limestone. His tools were homemade. Railroad spikes served as chisels and a common hammer as a sculptor's mallet. Later on he acquired better instruments. Some of the first carvings, the tombstones, were given away to neighbors, filling a real need. Others he sold for a dollar or two; after a while he would occasionally receive as much as $20. Sometimes his sculptures were exchanged in barter.
Once he began sculpting, Edmondson turned out large numbers of imaginative pieces, no longer confining himself to gravestones. Most of the pieces were small, limited by the size of the available pieces of limestone. But the effect is always monumental - whether a strong-winged but perky bird, an imaginary dragon-like ``varmint,'' a ``critter,'' a preacher, a Biblical character, a woman, or an angel.
Although just under 22 inches high, ``Seated Girl'' gives an impression of monumentality and, for an untaught naif, is an ambitious work. Usually Edmondson carved upright figures that face squarely to the front with no need to separate limbs from body. In this work he could not rely on massive clothing to support the girl, or angel's wings to remove the necessity of cutting through the stone for the arms. There is some incising to square off the neck of her dress, and one is not sure if the massive shoulders are intended to indicate her clothing or were an instinctive balance against the simplified legs.
One critic remarked that Edmondson used the same all-purpose face - a rounded chin, carved eyes, and nose framed with heavy textured hair - on all his figures. Another noted that although the artist's people had no necks, their arms were without wrists, their legs without ankles, the figures have great presence for their small size and an engaging dignity and vivacity which many rigorously schooled sculptors lack.
Edmondson once remarked: ``I is just doing the Lord's work. I didn't know I was no artist till them folks come told me I was.'' How did the work of this unpretentious man arrive in the art center of New York in a comparatively short time?
It seems he had a neighbor who noticed the little statues in Edmondson's modest yard. This neighbor came over, talked, and was impressed. He ultimately contacted a photographer for the glossy fashion magazine Harpers Bazaar, who visited Edmondson and made a portfolio of photographs to take back to New York. William Randolph Hearst, the publisher of the magazine, would have none of the idea of giving coverage to a black sculptor who was poor, untaught, and unknown. But the photographer took the shots to the Museum of Modern Art, whose director and trustees recognized the unusual quality of Edmondson's work and were interested in showing what they categorized as ``modern primitive'' art.
One of his blocky little figures was sent to Paris later in 1938, included in the exhibition ``Three Centuries of Art in the United States.''
AS a result of this exposure, Edmondson was given employment under the Work Projects Administration's Federal Art Project. He was tickled by this: ``Wouldn't that jolt you now? All the WPA and fine folk spreading this Lord's work around so children can learn wisdom. Wisdom, that's what the Lord give me at birth, but I didn't know it till He came and told me about it.''
A two-foot figure, designated ``Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt,'' seems to date from this time. It is hardly a portrait so much as the same rectangularly framed figure in his Biblical studies.
The famous photographer, Edward Weston, visited Edmondson and took photos of his carvings sitting deep in the uncut grass of his yard. His portrait of Edmondson - now in the photography collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art - shows a thin man with tattered sandals, cap, and apron over laborer's clothing sitting in front of the dark entrance to the shed which was his studio.
Although he never received widespread recognition during the 18 or so years that he worked, some museums around the country have preserved his art. In 1986, the Fine Arts Center in Cheekwood, Tenn., opened the William Edmondson Sculpture Gallery.
When this man looked at the work of his hands, he declared, ``These here is miracles I can do. Can't nobody do these but me. I can't help carving. I just does it. It's like when you're leaving here you're going home. Well, I know I'm going to carve.''