I Heard God Talking to Me: William Edmondson and His Stone Carvings

Elizabeth Spires

“I’se just doing the Lord’s Work. I didn’t know I was no artist till them folks told me I was”

One night in the early 1930s, William Edmondson, the son of former slaves and a janitor in Nashville, Tennessee, heard God speaking to him. And so he began to carve – tombstones, birdbaths, and stylized human figures, whose spirits seemed to emerge fully formed from the stone. Soon Edmondson’s talents caught the eye of prominent members of the art world, and in 1937 he became the first black artist to have a solo exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Here, in twenty-three free-verse poems, award-winning poet Elizabeth Spires gives voice to Edmondson and his creations, which tell their individual stories with wit and passion. With stunning photographs, including ten archival masterpieces by Louise Dahl-Wolfe and Edward Weston, this is a compelling portrait of a truly original American artist.

In the depths of the Great Depression, William Edmondson talked with God. And God delivered a message: “Learn to carve sculptures in limestone.” Within five years, the unschooled janitor from Nashville, Tennessee taught himself to be a master sculptor.  His work attracted influential fans, and in 1937 he became the first African American to be awarded a solo show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. William Edmondson, inspired by divine visions, called his carved limestone figures “miracles I can do.” Today, his “miracles” are prized by collectors and continue to inspire new generations of artists.

Today, his sculptures fetch as much as $400,000. Yet Edmondson’s story and his work remain unknown outside of a small group of elite collectors. This film aims to bring his story the attention it deserves. What inspired and drove Edmondson? How was he able to overcome the heavy burden of discrimination and segregation and become recognized in the highest strata of the art world? Who were the friends who helped his rise? What caused his fall back into obscurity? What is the lasting value of his work, and how does his legacy live on in the work of other artists today?

“Chipping Away: The Life and Legacy of Sculptor William Edmondson”,  a feature length documentary by award-winning filmmaker Mark Schlicher, celebrates the life story of this extraordinary artist. “Chipping Away” has been in research and production since early 2013, with a planned release in 2015. It weaves together interviews with top historians and art experts, as well as never-before-seen first-person accounts from people who knew Edmondson. Also featured will be rare historical photographs, and the only known film footage of the artist at work.


44. Cheekwood

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This place is a “must see” when in Nashville if you’re into the visual arts. Beautiful! If you become a member, they have a reciprocal membership with other museums/gardens. Fortunately, we have membership from the Edison and Ford museum so this was a freebie. However, this mission required a work around-

Mission: Take a shot with a William Edmondson stone figure-

Well, we were told repeatedly no photography - flash or otherwise- is allowed. I’m all for covert operations but breaking the law (the law of Cheekwood anyways) isn’t going to happen ;) So we improvised and took a pic w/ a photo in the museum guide. Hopefully that will be good enough! I want to mention also that the gate guard ( I wish I would of asked her name!) was so nice and polite about trying to find us an alternative. She mentioned that Mr Edmondson also carved headstones and that there may be some located at one of the local cemeteries. In the end, she let us use the museum guide shown in our photo.

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we changed the game

william edmondson (1874 - 1951)

Born in 1874 to former slaves in Davidson County, Tennessee. William, a self taught artist, only began his astounding sculptural practice later in life, in his fifties. Today he is internationally renowned as one of the greatest stone carvers of the 20th century, and his work resides in the finest collections of sculpture worldwide.