Elijah Pierce Biography from the Columbus State Resource Guide
Elijah Pierce was born the youngest son of a former slave on a Mississippi farm on March 5, 1892. He began carving at an early age when his father gave him his first pocketknife. By age seven, Elijah Pierce began carving little wooden farm animals. His uncle, Lewis Wallace, inspired and instructed him in the art of carving. His Uncle Lewis taught him how to work with wood, what kind of wood to use, and how to enjoy carving. As a child, Pierce loved to go out into the woods by the creek bank with his dog to fish and to whittle animals or other small figurines from wood scraps he’d find on the forest floor. He enjoyed giving away his carvings to the kids in school and thus he began his lifelong practice of giving away his carved pieces to people who admired his work or to people he felt could benefit from it.
In his teens, Pierce decided he didn’t want to be a farmer. However, he had taken an interest in barbering. Pierce began hanging out at a local barbershop in Baldwyn, Mississippi and it was there that he learned his trade. Pierce liked barbering. It was a trade that would allow him to have some independence and he could get a job anywhere.
In his early twenties, Pierce married Zetta Palm. They were very happy together. Pierce had work as a barber and they had a little home. At the end of a year, Zetta died shortly after the birth of their son, Willie, ca. 1915. In the late 1910’s and early 1920’s, Pierce lived a hobolike existence hitching rides on boxcars and working as an itinerant laborer for the railroad. He would visit his mother in Baldwyn and she encouraged him to follow his religious calling. In 1920, Pierce received his preacher’s license from his home church of Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Baldwyn.
Eventually, Pierce decided to join the migration to the cities in the north. In Danville, Illinois, Pierce met Cornelia Houeston who would become his second wife. Cornelia was from Columbus, Ohio. When Cornelia returned to Columbus in 1923, Pierce missed her greatly and he followed her there. They were married in September 1923.
During his marriage with Cornelia, Pierce found work as a barber and began to carve wood seriously. One year during the late 1920’s, Pierce carved a small elephant for Cornelia’s birthday. She liked it so much that he promised her an entire zoo. He began carving animals in earnest and many were sold or given away. For Pierce, these individual animal carvings each had their own story. They represented the beasts of Genesis or creatures from the folktales of Pierce’s youth.
By the early 1930’s, he began mounting his three-dimensional figures on cardboard or wooden backgrounds. In 1932, Pierce completed the Book of Wood which he considered his best work. The book was originally carved as individual scenes and tells the story of Jesus carved in bas-relief. Cornelia and Elijah held “sacred art demonstrations” to explain the meaning of the Book of Wood. Panels from the Book of Wood are currently on display at the Columbus Museum of Art in the Eye Spy exhibit.
Cornelia Pierce died of cancer in 1948 at the age of sixty-one. In 1951, Pierce became self-employed with the opening his own barbershop at 483 E. Long St. A year later, he married Estelle Greene who was then forty-six. They complemented each other and Pierce’s work as an artist and lay minister continued to grow.
His barbershop on Long Street was a hospitable gathering place. Customers would come not only for haircuts, but to discuss the news of the day. Pierce was quite engaged in the life of the local community and of the nation. His secular carvings show his love of baseball, boxing, comics and the movies. They also reflect his interest in national politics and his appreciation for American heroes who fought for justice and liberty. Through his carvings Pierce told his own life story and chronicled the African-American experience. He also carved stories with universal themes. He seldom distinguished the race of his figures - he thought of them as everyman.
It wasn’t until the early 1970’s that Pierce became known outside the local community. Boris Gruenwald, a sculptor and graduate student at Ohio State University, discovered Elijah Pierce’s work in a Columbus YMCA exhibition. Gruenwald met with Pierce told him that he was going to make sure the world knew of his art. The two would become dear friends and Gruenwald organized several important exhibitions. Within a few years Pierce was known both nationally and internationally in the world of folk art. Pierce was honored to participate in exhibitions at galleries such as the Krannert Art Museum, the Phyllis Kind Gallery of New York, the National Museum of American Art, and the Renwick Gallery. In 1973, Pierce won first prize in the International Meeting of Naive Art in Zagreb, Yugoslavia. In 1982, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a National Heritage Fellowship as one of 15 master traditional artists.
In a 1979 article from New York Times Magazine, Bob Bishop of the Museum of American Folk Art in New York explained, “There are 500 woodcarvers working today in the United States who are technically as proficient as Pierce, but none can equal the power of Pierce’s personal vision.” Tom Armstrong of the Whitney Museum in Pennsylvania added, “Pierce’s strength is based on his religion and his concept of the importance of the individual. He reduces what he wants to say to the simplest forms and compositions. They are decorative, direct, bold and amusing. He uses glitter and all kinds of devices to make his message clear. It gives his work an immediacy that’s very appealing.”
Elijah Pierce died May 7, 1984. Although much was written about the impact he made with his art, the people who knew him all said that what they will remember most is the kind, gentle, and humorous man who was a friend, a spiritual advisor, and a mentor to so many.
After his death, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Performing and Cultural Arts Complex recognized his work by naming the Elijah Pierce Gallery in his honor. The Columbus Museum of Art now owns the vast majority of Pierce’s carvings - over 300 pieces.
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