Born in 1874, William Edmondson was typical of the post-Civil War African American generation of the south. With very little education and a gift for storytelling, he worked in many different jobs, from farmhand to railroad worker. But it was his work as a stonemasons assistant that would appeal to his creative side and launch him into a lifelong passion for sculpting and working in stone.
In the 1930’s, after the building boom in Nashville had receded and the depression was taking its toll on the average American, Edmondson would start creating pieces from his home. Producing tombstones and garden ornaments he was able to eke out a living. While visiting Nashville a photographer for Harper’s Bazaar magazine spotted his work. Upon her return to New York, she told the director of the Museum of Modern Art about his primitive style and he asked Edmondson if he would be willing to have a solo show at the museum. So, William Edmondson would be the first African American to show his art at the prestigious Museum of Modern Art.
By the late 1940’s, Edmondson’s health would start to fail and he had to give up stone carving. He died February 7, 1951 and was buried in Nashville. From his very humble roots, son of former slaves, to a solo show at MOMA, William Edmondson paved the way for African American artists to come. His modern primitive style and whimsical characters were a natural extension of his storytelling personality.