William Edmondson’s career was both exceptional and prolific, especially considering that he only began sculpting around the age of 55. Born between 1874 and 1883 (exact records have been destroyed by fire) in Davidson County, Tennessee, Edmondson grew up as the son of former slaves. His family initially made a living by sharecropping on the same plantation where his parents had been enslaved. Edmondson eventually moved to the city of Nashville, where he would spend much of his life. He never married, living with a rotating variety of family members in his house in Nashville’s Edgehill neighborhood.
Around 1934, Edmondson experienced a divine call, later articulating a vision in which God prompted him to take up chisel and begin carving – or preaching, as he described it – religious messages through art. He began by making tombstones for people in his Nashville African-American community before expanding to carve animals and people, almost always with biblical significance.
In 1936, approximately two years after he began making art, Edmondson was introduced to the New York-based photographer Louise Dahl-Wolfe. Dahl-Wolfe subsequently championed Edmondson’s art in New York, leading to a 1937 solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art – the first African American artist to have a solo exhibition at the prestigious Museum. Edmondson would continue sculpting and carving almost until his death in 1951. Unfortunately, he was buried without a gravestone and his burial records have since been destroyed by fire, a note of sad irony for a man who lives on through his beautifully carved tombstones and sculptures.
In the decades following Edmondson’s death, his work became more well-known than it had been during his lifetime. This is when the Oak Spring Garden Foundation’s founder, Bunny Mellon, was likely introduced to Edmondson. Bunny Mellon found Edmondson’s work to be wonderful, and during an October 2000 Sotheby’s Americana sale, she purchased an Edmondson birdbath.
Stone birdbaths are technically complex pieces to create. The base, shaft and capital are held together by gravity alone, which means they need to have precise fitting and balance in order to stay upright. Like most of Edmondson’s work, the doves adorning the piece Mellon purchased have symbolic religious significance, but also fit in with the aesthetic that she curated around her home and gardens.
The bath stood outside her library from the time it was purchased until a severe thunderstorm in the fall of 2016 blew it over. The sculpture was was damaged and moved into storage to prevent any further wear. Now, on the 67th anniversary of William Edmondson’s death, we have restored and rededicated the birdbath.
It has been set in a place of prominence within Oak Spring’s formal garden – inside Bunny Mellon’s “Honey House” where baskets and other beautiful gardening objects live. There it will be protected from the elements and invite conversations about sculpture within the garden, drawing a connection between fine art and horticulture. William Edmondson’s incredible legacy lives on in this birdbath his other work, the beautiful tombstones and gardening ornaments he called miracles.