Curious Nashville: Where Famed 'Outsider' Artist William Edmondson Lived And What's There Now

Feb 17, 2017
Originally published on February 17, 2017 2:46 pm

WPLN listener Hart Armstrong asked the following question to Curious Nashville: Where in Nashville did the artist William Edmondson live? Is there a plaque?

The short answer is that the home of sculptor William Edmondson—the first African American to have a solo show in the Museum of Modern Art—is no longer standing. And in fact, his whole block was torn down years after his death, during an urban renewal project in Edgehill that began in the late 1960s.

Murrell School, a Metro facility serving students with special needs, backs up to a park where a gazebo and a walking track cover the ground on which Edmondson's house stood. There is a marker from the Metro Nashville Historical Commission about half a block south of the home site.

While most traces of Edmondson's life in Nashville have vanished, his significance in the art world has only grown in the 60-plus years since his death. Last year, his piece "Boxer" sold for $785,000 in a Christie's auction, a record high for an "outsider artist."

Long Life Of Labor, Quick Rise To Fame

William Edmondson had only been sculpting his now-iconic limestone figures for four or five years when fame essentially stumbled into his lap.

He was in his 50s (as far as anyone knows) and had already led a hard life of farm labor, railroad work, and then a quarter century spent as a janitor and orderly at a women's hospital in Nashville.

After he was laid off at the hospital, he famously said a vision from God called him to create "sermons in stone."

Edmondson said the visions showed him tombstones and other shapes to carve as clearly as most people see clouds.


He admitted to thinking he couldn't do it at first, but said God beckoned him on as he began gathering scraps of limestone to his yard and shaping them with a hammer and a railroad spike in an open-air shed.

Through the winters, he worked by a coal-burning stove. Neighbors said he worked long hours, whenever the sun was up on weekdays. Often on weekends, he had visitors looking to buy his work.

He hung sign above the shed that read "Tomb-Stones For Sale. Garden Ornaments. Stone Work."

Home Address Played A Big Role

The house was at 1434 14th Avenue South, and its proximity to Peabody College (now Vanderbilt's Peabody College of Education) proved fortuitous.

Peabody professor Sidney Hirsch frequently walked past Edmondson's house, admired his work, and eventually struck up a conversation with Edmondson.

According to Edmondson biographer Elizabeth Spires, Hirsch started a chain reaction that raised the artist's profile very quickly when he introduced the him to Alfred and Elizabeth Starr. The Starrs were well-connected art lovers, and they evangelized about Edmonson's work to their friend Louise Dahl-Wolfe, a photographer for Harper's Bazaar in New York. Dahl-Wolfe purchased some pieces and took several now-famous photos of Edmondson.


She also spread the word to her friends in the New York art scene, including the Museum of Modern Art.

Alfred Barr, Jr., MoMA's director at the time of his 1937 show, said that Edmondson sculpted "with extraordinary courage and directness to carve out simple, emphatic forms. The spirit of his work does not betray the inspiration which he believes to be his active guide."

An exhibition in Paris quickly followed. The back-to-back high-profile shows cemented his status as one of America's most important "outsider" artists.

But Edmondson said he never thought of himself as an artist until his fans began calling him that.

Corn Fields, Now Green Hills

Edmondson reported having visions since childhood. Here's how his description of one was transcribed in the Museum of Modern Art's press release:

"I had a vision. Yes, sir, I wuz jus' a little boy 'bout 13, 14 years old, doin' in de corn fields. I saw in de east world, I saw in de west world, I saw de flood. I ain't never read no books nor no Bible and I saw de water come. It come up over de rocks, covered up de rocks and went over de mountains. God, he jus' showed me how."

Those corn fields he mentions were almost certainly on the Compton family's plantation where Edmondson was born, where his parents had been slaves — and it was right in the heart of what is now Green Hills on Hillsboro Pike.

Edmondson was born in 1874… or 1883, or sometime in between. He said his birth record was destroyed along with the family Bible in a fire, and he wasn't sure of the date. And if you search archival news articles about him, you'll see a wide range of years when he was supposed to have been born.

Growing up on that farm, Nashville was a three-mile walk up the road. Eventually, Edmondson, who never married, bought that house in Edgehill. Some of his five brothers and sisters apparently moved nearby: it's said he had nieces and nephews who hung around while he worked.

Edmondson died at his home in 1951. Here's a map of the neighborhood just a few years earlier, in 1947, years before the map was changed by urban renewal.

 


Edmondson was buried in Mt. Ararat Cemetery. It's now called Greenwood Cemetery West, on Elm Hill Pike near Trevecca Nazarene University. But ironically, there is no tombstone marking this tombstone-makers grave. Either there was never a marker or his name faded with time. His location in the cemetery is unknown.

On Charlotte Avenue between 16th and 17th Avenues North, there's a recently commissioned park dedicated to William Edmondson. It contains several pieces of sculpture, a celebration of Edmondson's legacy even if its location doesn't relate to the sculptor's life.

If Edmondson's Edgehill home had not been torn down during urban renewal, it would surely be gone now. The smaller homes on 14th Avenue across from where Edmondson's once stood have all been torn down in recent years, and are now being replaced with much larger ones. Edmondson wouldn't recognize his own street today, save for the glimpse of the Belmont Mansion up the hill.

 

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