While recently in Nashville I got to see an exhibition of sculpture by William Edmondson, the first African American to have a one-man show at MOMA, in 1937. Most were carved in an outdoor setting, and clearly intended for display there; they seemed ill at ease in the luxurious gallery where they now reside. Edmondson (1874-1951) was the child of freed slaves (his last name is the name of the farm just outside of Nashville to which he 'belonged'), and he called his sculptures miracles.
He carved them in his front yard and sold them for a few dollars along with vegetables at his roadside stand. Now they sell for six figures.
"His entire yard was filled with animals and human figures carved directly out of limestone blocks. His style was and is distinctive. In his own words, he carved "stingily," barely liberating the living creatures he saw in the stone from its confines. His human figures are voluptuously rounded, his animals sturdy. Whether human or animal, each is endowed with expressive facial features and other intricate detailing. At once primitive and sophisticated, his work straddles the folk art and modern art worlds. "
"The fleeting recognition during his lifetime never affected Edmondson’s own assessment of his art. "I was just doing the Lord’s work," he said in one interview. "I didn’t know I was no artist until them folks come and told me I was." Indeed, in every existing interview with Edmondson, he consistently credited God when asked about his work and never referred to himself as an artist."
A friend once said to me that some people think they're artists and they're not; and some people think they're not artists when they really are.
I've always remembered that.
[source of quotations is this excellent article on Edmondson]