Dispatch (January 24, 1993): p.
“Carving From the
Soul: Exhibit Celebrates the Spirit that Came Out of Elijah Pierce’s
By Nancy Gilson.
Hundreds of people must remember going to Elijah Pierce's
barbershop on Long Street, seeking Pierce's latest woodcarvings, spiritual
conversation, or simply a haircut and gossip.
They may have marveled at brightly colored animal figures,
vivid carvings of sports heroes, or the ambitious Book of Wood depicting the
life of Christ.
Or, like artist Aminah Robinson, they may have entered
another level of communication, discussing God's ''laws of life'' with Pierce.
''When I see his work now, it brings it all back,''
Robinson said. ''He hasn't really gone. His life is timeless and there's much
left to be learned. . . . The smallest child can appreciate him. His work knows
no age, race or gender barrier. It reaches all people.''
The first definitive retrospective of Pierce's works,
''Elijah Pierce: Woodcarver,'' coming just more than 100 years after Pierce's
birth, opens today at the Columbus Museum of Art.
Accompanying the 173-piece exhibition will be the first
comprehensive color catalog devoted to Pierce's works, a book Museum Executive
Director Merribell Parsons calls as important as the exhibit.
''Pierce was an extraordinary person and a mentor to many
people,'' she said. ''This is the largest collection of his works from all over
Robinson said the exhibit will ''clear up the clouds of
those who really don't know him or take him as a naive, childlike artist. . . .
He was not that.''
One of his greatest attributes, she said, was his
''profoundness - the way he stored his history, his Bible stories, his
community. In his retelling of those stories, he was resurrecting new life in
his art. . . . That's when you begin to see his other language.''
Robinson, illustrator of a children's picture book about
Pierce and whose own works bear unmistakable tribute to him, remembers sketching
in Pierce's studio in the early 1970s.
In the summer, ripe tomatoes and flowers on each side of
the steps leading up to the shop sent off their distinct aromas.
''It was crowded inside, yet there was silence,'' Robinson said. ''There were the rumblings of his works speaking to us. I remember all the hair on that wood floor. Mr. Pierce would shake the white sheet off his friend after he'd cut his hair. The friend would leave and then Mr. Pierce would come back to the studio with his carving tool and begin to carve.
''He was always still. He had a peace. Yet he was always
moving. People would come in to interview him or paint him. They loved him.
Schoolchildren would crowd into the gallery.''
After Pierce died in 1984, the museum, near the Long Street
barbershop, purchased the studio's contents. The exhibition includes works from
the museum collection and pieces from other public and private collections, many
of which have never or not recently been displayed.
The exhibit, arranged by subject matter, includes carved
and vividly painted wood reliefs, tableaus, signs and figures. Many are
religious, depicting Bible stories or Pierce's personal faith.
''Even my second wife used to say I had to carve every
sermon I never preached,'' Pierce once said. ''I guess the good Lord put me on
Works also include scenes from Pierce's life, beginning
with his Southern rural childhood and his adult life in Northern cities. His
subjects were animals, athletes such as Archie Griffin and Hank Aaron, and
historic figures including Paul Revere and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Pierce's ''message signs,'' sometimes depicting African-American folk tales, are
like three-dimensional cartoon strips.
Exhibit curators E. Jane Connell and Nannette V. Maciejunes
said Pierce ''navigated a very personal course through the secular and spiritual
worlds, and the medium of wood provided the essential vehicle for the subjects
he chose to communicate through his art.''
Pierce was born in 1892 to a devout Baptist family in rural
Baldwyn, Miss. His family lived in a log cabin partly built by Pierce's father,
a former slave.
When he was 7 years old, Elijah, inspired and instructed by
an uncle, began carving wooden farm animals.
By the time he was a teen-ager, Pierce knew he didn't want
to be a farmer. He worked as a laborer and a barber. He had learned this skill,
important for blacks at a time when white barbers wouldn't cut their hair, when
he was 11.
Pierce married and settled in Mississippi, but when his
young wife died a year later, he left for the North. He married again and, with
Cornelia Pierce, settled in Columbus in 1923. Several years after Cornelia died
in 1948, Pierce married a third time. Estelle Pierce today lives in North
Pierce opened the Long Street shop in the 1950s and worked
as a barber until he retired in 1978. Along the way, he became a member of the
Gay Tabernacle Baptist Church, a lay minister and a Mason.
His first public recognition as an artist was in the early
1970s when Boris Gruenwald, a sculptor and Ohio State University graduate
student who had discovered Pierce's carvings at a YMCA senior citizens' show in
Columbus, organized several exhibitions. In 1973, Pierce won first prize at the
International Meeting of Naive Art in Zagreb, Yugoslavia.
Pierce has been called a ''preacher in wood'' whose works
are ''sermons in wood.'' Attending school only through the eighth grade, he was
self-taught as an artist. Parsons said he was a folk artist but not an outsider,
well-integrated in his community and inspired by newspapers, comic strips, books
''He went on spiritual journeys with everybody,'' Robinson said. ''He didn't give you any information he didn't feel you weren't ready for, so he spoke to people on different levels, about Bible stories or his personal experiences.''
Two of the catalog essayists offer telling descriptions of
Pierce. The first is from the essay by Gerald Davis of Rutgers University.
''Pierce, as were most folk artists, was dynamically aware
of his world. This . . . superbly presented man was no mere simple soul. His
life and his art are metaphors for the dynamism of life and the legitimization
of the power of African-American aesthetic structures.''
Upon meeting and shaking hands with Pierce, artist and critic Michael D. Hall wrote: ''This tall, elegant, soft-spoken black man named Elijah had the largest hands I ever held.''
Caption: Elijah Pierce
Alligator, carved by Pierce in 1974, is embellished with
rhinestones, sawdust and teeth from a plastic comb.
Pierce was a great admirer of boxer Joe Louis and carved this tribute, based on a photograph, in 1967.
The Wise and Foolish Virgins and the Man With the Clean and Soiled Heart is one of numerous carved and painted wood reliefs depicting Bible stories of faith and vigilance.
The Little White Church shows the white clapboard church Pierce attended as a boy in Baldwyn, Miss.
Copyright 1993 The Columbus
REPRINTED, WITH PERMISSION, FROM THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH