A ‘Holy Grail’ of American folk art, hiding in plain sight

John Foster was driving through St. Louis in 2019 when he spotted something unusual on the front porch of a home just east of Forest Park.

“I thought, ‘That doesn’t look like just a piece-of-concrete lawn ornament,’” said Foster, a St Louis-based author, historian and art enthusiast.

He couldn’t stop at the time, but the remarkable carving — a pair of seated stone women, their bodies flecked with moss — stuck in his mind. He returned a few weeks later and knocked on the door.

“Can I take a closer look?” he asked the couple who answered, Sally Bliss and her husband, Jim Connett.

He bent down and examined it. The faces were obscured by the green moss, but the distinctive small mouths resting directly beneath vertical noses, nearly closed eyes, and contrast in surfaces between the flatness of the dress and the fluffiness of the bottom left no doubt: This was the work of stone carver William Edmondson, the first Black artist to have a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

“It was like finding the Holy Grail,” Foster said. “Edmondson worked in Nashville, so who would ever dream that a piece would be in St Louis?”

Bliss, 84, whose first husband, Anthony A Bliss, inherited the sculpture from his art collector parents, was thrilled by the discovery. (Anthony Bliss’ father, Cornelius N Bliss Jr, was the brother of a founder of MoMA, Lillie P Bliss.) Sally Bliss had known the piece had been carved by an African American sculptor — she thought his name might have been Robertson — but had not been aware of its full significance.

Foster encouraged the couple to place the work in a museum — and since Bliss, a former principal dancer with the Metropolitan Opera and New York City Opera, had lived in New York for more than 50 years, Foster suggested the American Folk Art Museum. He reached out to a friend, Valérie Rousseau, a curator at the museum, who flew to St Louis to examine it.

Rousseau suspected that the 10-inch-tall carving was one of Edmondson’s “Martha and Mary” sculptures, whose whereabouts had been unknown for decades. It had last been displayed at an exhibition at the Jeu de Paume museum in Paris in 1938 called “Three Centuries of American Art.” Then it kind of fell off the map.

Even though it was covered with green moss, Rousseau said, “the details were clear enough — like a notch near the knee — to indicate that it was the same as an image of the piece from the Jeu de Paume 1938 exhibition catalogue.”

What had happened, she discovered, was that while the 1938 catalogue identified the owner as Mrs Cornelius N Bliss Jr — Sally Bliss’ mother-in-law — when the image had been reprinted in Edmund L Fuller’s 1973 book, “Visions in Stone: The Sculpture of William Edmondson,” it carried a new caption: “Owner Unknown.” (The book, with its first monograph of Edmondson’s work, has become a reference for scholars of the artist.)

“MoMA, which organized the Paris show, provided these images to Fuller without also providing the owner of the piece,” she said. “So there was this gap.”

Although Edmondson had work included in the exhibition in Paris, national and international interest in his art was fleeting. He was the subject of only two solo shows during his lifetime: one at MoMA in 1937 and the other at the Nashville Art Gallery in 1941. He died in 1951 in that Tennessee city after struggling financially during his final years.

Edmondson’s work never fetched large sums while he was alive, and many of the approximately 300 pieces he created over his roughly 15-year career ended up in people’s gardens and backyards — just the kind of outsider art that another artist was drawn to.

Brian Donnelly, known professionally as KAWS, was brought in to assist; he is also a member of the American Folk Art Museum’s board. He thought it was important for the museum to have, and it is a promised gift to the museum from KAWS within the next 20 years. He bought the piece, and it was transported to New York. (KAWS and the museum declined to reveal the price.)

Over the summer, it was cleaned and conserved. The sculpture will go on display with other works by Edmondson at the American Folk Art Museum in “Multitudes,” a 60th anniversary exhibition for the museum that begins Jan 21, 2022.

“As an admirer of William Edmondson’s work, I’m happy this sculpture will have a home at the American Folk Art Museum,” KAWS said in a statement, “where a wider audience might also discover the importance of this incredible artist.”

A striking aspect of the sculpture, which merges quotidian and biblical themes, is the women’s nearly closed eyes and passive posture of students listening to a teacher, Rousseau said — especially Martha, who’s normally presented as busy, preparing food for the guests at the Last Supper.

“It could be a way to illustrate the excess of our society,” she said. “It may be Edmondson’s take on wealth: Why should we ask more when we have enough? The important part is to listen when Jesus is trying to teach us something about life, not to provide an extra big banquet for all the guests who are going to come.”

Edmondson, who was self-taught, was born on a plantation near Nashville to formerly enslaved parents. He began sculpting in 1934, when he was about 60, after he reported seeing a vision from God, who told him to begin work on a tombstone.

He carved grave markers from chunks of discarded limestone from demolished buildings, as well as lawn ornaments, bird baths and decorative sculptures. His work often featured biblical characters — the sisters Martha and Mary were some of his favourites — as well as angels, animals and community leaders. He forged his own chisels from railroad spikes and sold tombstones to neighbours for a few dollars.

He came to the art world’s attention around 1936 when a neighbour, writer Sidney Mttron Hirsch, came across Edmondson’s vast sculpture collection. A pair of Hirsch’s friends, Alfred and Elizabeth Starr, introduced Edmondson to several of their artist friends, including Louise Dahl-Wolfe, a photographer for Harper’s Bazaar magazine in New York. She brought Edmondson’s work to the attention of Alfred H Barr Jr, the director of the Museum of Modern Art.

One of Edmondson’s sculptures, “Boxer,” sold for $785,000 at Christie’s in 2016, setting a record not only for work by Edmondson but any work of outsider art.

So, could there be more Edmondsons lurking in the Midwest?

“Over the years, I’ve heard collectors say it’s very possible there could be a garden piece by Edmondson in someone’s yard that’s grown over and covered with weeds and sunk into the ground,” Foster said. “Who knows? I never dreamed one of his works would somehow magically make its way to St Louis.”

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