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Elijah Pierce | The Book of Wood

Harvest Angel | woodcarving by Elijah Pierce

Whittled. Carved. Handmade. Self-made. These words describe the remarkable life and art of Elijah Pierce.

Whittled. Carved. Handmade. Self-made. These words describe the remarkable life and art of Elijah Pierce.

Born in 1892 on a cotton farm in Baldwyn, Mississippi, son of a former slave, Elijah would follow a path that inexorably led to his being recognized in his 80s as one of Ohio’s greatest folk artists. His path from poor farm life to the life of a barber, preacher, family man, and artist would take him through many profound, tragic, and uplifting events. But in a sense, they all began at the age of 7, when his father gave him a pocketknife, and his uncle Lewis Wallace taught him to carve wood.

From small branches to tree trunks, as a little boy he carved anything and everything he could get his hands on, creating small woodcarvings of farm animals that he would lovingly gift to classmates. Over the course of his lifetime, both his skills and the subject matter of his woodcarvings became more profound, humane, and vibrant. This artistic mastery can easily be seen in one of his greatest works, “The Book of Wood.” This remarkable “book” illustrates 33 scenes from the life of Christ and would prove to be of great importance personally and artistically. Parts of this masterwork are on display online at POBA and can be viewed at the Columbus (Ohio) Museum of Art.

After the tragic deaths of two wives, he would marry again and move to Ohio to live as an artist devoted to nonreligious themes, depicting sporting events, daily life, and the African-American experience without overtly identifying his subjects as one race or another. He would also become an influential member of the community creating, as a preacher and as a barber, community spaces for exchange, discussion, and fun.

Eventually, both the character of the man and the creativity of the artist would lead to late-in-life recognition: Before his death in 1984, Elijah was invited to exhibit his work at the Museum of Modern Art and the Phyllis Kind Gallery in New York, the National Museum of American Art, the Renwick Gallery, Bernard Danenberg Galleries, and the Krannert Art Museum, among others. He would receive accolades from The New York Times Magazine and the Whitney Museum. In 1982, the National Endowment for the Arts honored him as one of 15 master traditional artists, awarding him a National Heritage Fellowship.

You can see more of the “Book of Wood” at POBA | Where The Arts Live, an online arts hub and resource center that displays, promotes, and preserves creative legacies; helps folks that own or manage a creative legacy or arts collection to ensure these collections live on; and helps working artists to manage their works for future preservation, viewing, and value.