Columbus Dispatch  (January 24, 1993):  p. 1 G.

“Carving From the Soul: Exhibit Celebrates the Spirit that Came Out of Elijah Pierce’s Woodwork.”
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 the country.''

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 the woodpile.''

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 Carolina.

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 and magazines.

''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 Dispatch