Elijah Pierce was one of Ohio’s most acclaimed self-taught artists and one of the first African American wood carvers to rise to international prominence during his lifetime. Born in rural Mississippi near the turn of the century, Pierce lived and developed his artistic eye in a Columbus, Ohio barbershop three and a half blocks from the Columbus Museum of Art, where many of his significant pieces now reside. Pierce died in 1984.
Sculptor and folk art collector Michael Hall (the Milwaukee Museum of Art is home to the Hall Collection) knew Pierce when the artist still carved narrative sculptures between giving hair cuts. Hall says Pierce stands out among other self-taught wood carvers because he was a consummate storyteller.
“Some were from daily life, life around the barber shop, life within the African American community in Ohio, and sometimes he just whittled little animals and figures and put them out for his own amusement,” says Hall. “There’s a real breadth and complexity to his work.”
“The Essential Elijah Pierce,” organized by the Columbus Museum of Art, is on display at the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft through March 16. On March 6, Hall will speak at KMAC on Pierce’s life and work.
Hall’s interest in self-taught artists dates back to his Southern California childhood, where he became fascinated with tribal art, an interest he turned into professional tiki carving. But his interest in American folk art has its roots in the Bluegrass, where he discovered artists like Edgar Tolson during his tenure on the art faculty of the University of Kentucky in the 1960s.
“I saw in folk art, in a flash, the same interest and uniqueness and expressive power that I had found in tribal art, but this was in my own backyard,” says Hall. “The essentials of creativity are what drives folk art. That’s what makes folk art important, in my way of looking at it. Hey, if people in the mountains with a pocket knife and a couple of cans of hardware store paint can make interesting sculpture, I should be able to do the same with my studio in Lexington.”
“Creativity is scattered very broadly and very democratically through the human race, and artists are kind of everywhere, and I was one of them,” he adds.
After Tolson and other Kentucky artists, Hall was introduced to Pierce’s wood carvings, and for more than ten years, even after moving to the Detroit area, Hall visited Pierce in his Columbus barber shop to watch him work.
“He would carve and talk,” says Hall. “He was an outstanding storyteller.”
Some of the narratives Pierce explored in his wood carvings were Biblical, and others were sourced from daily life in Columbus’s African American community. Hall praises the complexity of Pierce’s work, which can be seen in pieces like “Elijah Escapes the Mob,” which tells the story of how, when Pierce was a young man in rural Mississippi, he was briefly and falsely accused of murder. An eyewitness exonerated him, but the threat of racial violence by townspeople was real and strong in Mississippi at that time, so the sheriff told Pierce to go home by the backroads to avoid an angry mob.
“It starts out with him being arrested, then has him in jail, and all of these details are illustrated in this panel. Then, down in the lower right hand corner ,you see the figure that is Elijah running, and you see a rabbit running alongside of him,” Hall explains.
“It’s a powerful piece of Civil Rights commentary,” says Hall. “It’s also a narrative autobiographical story. And when you see it on display, you’ll understand why I say he’s such a great storyteller.”
It also illustrates two principals Hall finds present in meaningful folk, or self-taught, art.
“It has to strike a common chord, so that means it has to be about something that we, the viewers, can recognize,” he says. “On the other hand, it has to be private and it has to be personal, or it really didn’t matter a lot.”
“The key here is self,” he adds. “We want the artist’s self to be registered in the work.”
Hall says the appeal of self-taught artists like Pierce has helped jump-start a sea change in how we think about what art is and where it comes from.
“What people like about folk art is the lack of self-consciousness and in some ways the lack of commercial marketing. The stuff seems authentic to them, and it seems interesting because it doesn’t come out of a commercial gallery situation, at least not initially, and they like that you can meet these artists on their own terms,” he says.