Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Elijah Pierce, legendary woodcarver

On March 5, 1892, Elijah Pierce, the son of a slave, was born on a cotton farm in Baldwyn, Mississippi. He described his father as "a thoroughbred farmer who believed in growing his food." But Elijah wasn't born to work the fields: "My two brothers liked to farm, but I didn't. Guess I was peculiar. I didn't like to play with other boys. I liked the woods. I would go there with my dogs and my pocket knives."

His father gave him his first pocket knife early, and by the time he was seven, an uncle had instructed him in the best kinds of wood to use from what could be found on the forest floor and taught him how to carve simple little wooden farm animals. Pierce also recalled, "When I'd find a smooth-bark tree, I'd carve on it – Indians or an arrow and heart or a girl's name – whatever I thought of."

It was in Chicago that he met a young woman from Columbus, Cornelia Houeston, who made him reconsider the virtues of being footloose. "I said I'd never marry (again) ... but one day I told the man I worked for to find another barber, and I got on a train to Columbus."

"I never had a thousand dollars cash in my life till I found she saved it from what I gave her by the week (as a barber). Had it in teacups and pots and tied up in hankychiefs, and one day rolled it out on the bed and showed me."

During the '20s, Cornelia "saw a little elephant and liked it, so I carved her one like it for Christmas. She put it on a chain around her neck. I said, 'You like that thing that well, I'll carve you a zoo.' And I did. Then fellas would come in to the barber shop and say, 'Can you carve such and such a animal?' or some other thing, and I'd try that."

During the Depression, Elijah traveled around to fairs and exhibits and sold a few figures, but gave away most of them as "little souvenirs" for friends and customers, who, in turn, would bring him pieces of wood for carving material.

There were a few newspaper articles about him in the '40s, some by Citizen-Journal columnist Ben Hayes, who often shook his head sardonically at the irony of Elijah's practicing his art "only a block away" from the Columbus Gallery of Fine Arts, which was either unaware of or unheeding of the greatness so near it.

In 1970 or 1971, Pierce's carvings were entered in a Golden Age Hobby Show, sponsored by the now vanished Columbus Citizen-Journal, at the Columbus Gallery of Fine Arts, a block away from Pierce's own stations at the cross, so to speak, and the red and white striped barber pole depicting his known profession.

Boris Gruenwald, a Yugoslavian graduate student in sculpture at The Ohio State University, saw them there or at a YMCA exhibition and said "this work had to be where people could see it," Pierce explained simply. "That was real nice of him." They became close, lifelong friends. Through Gruenwald's influence, an exhibit of Elijah's art was staged at OSU's Hopkins Hall in 1971. On posters outside, for the first time, he was labeled ELIJAH PIERCE, FOLK ARTIST.

His work was shown at the Bernard Danenberg Galleries and other elite venues in New York shortly after the University of Illinois exhibit, and then, in February, 1972, at the prestigious Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Critics hailed and hosannaed the talents of the newly found artist, Elijah Pierce, then eighty.

Finally, in November, 1972, Pierce's carvings and sculptures were exhibited at the Columbus Gallery of Fine Arts. In 1973, Pierce won first prize at the International Meeting of Naïve Art in Zagreb, Yugoslavia, and other great honors paved the way to his receiving a 1982 award from the National Endowment for the Arts' National Heritage Fellowship as one of fifteen master traditional artists.

But in a conversation with a friend not long before his death on May 7, 1984, at the age of ninety-two, he laughed slyly. "You know, I'm famous now." The laughter grew in both. "If I'd a known this all those years ago, I woulda bought a bigger hat."

Photo by Kojo Kamau

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