Keny Galleries: Carvings show Elijah Pierce’s political side

Artist known for religious works also dealt with social issues

By  For the Columbus Dispatch  •  

To experience the story of humanity, one need only look at Elijah Pierce’s narrative woodcarvings.

A legend in Columbus, Pierce (1892-1984) was the son of a former slave. He took up woodcarving at an early age and, as an active participant in the civil-rights movement, later used the medium to spread messages of peace.

Not formally trained as an artist, Pierce masterfully organized his compositions to unfold in a clear narrative.

Pierce is well-known for his religious-themed carvings, but the 22 works in “Parables and Politics,” at the Keny Galleries, present another viewpoint on his work — one that is politically charged.

A small woodcarving from 1972, 
The Prisoner and the Warden, sets up a clear opposition of freedom and oppression. The figure of the prisoner, large in scale, is pictured dancing and holding a banjo in the center of the composition. Above the prisoner, the disembodied head of the warden looks on.

Works such as 
Tis a Mean Dog That Bites the Hand That Feeds It and The Good Samaritan convey moral messages. The former pictures a man reaching out a bloodied hand toward a beastlike dog. The scene clearly illustrates the adage “Don’t bite the hand that feeds.”

The Good Samaritan
 is at once the well-known biblical story and a universal calling to help those in your community equally. Made in 1965 while the civil-rights movement was in full swing, the image couldn’t be more relevant to Pierce’s biography.

The star of the exhibit, the enormous and imaginative carving 
Joy, speaks volumes about the artist’s ability to not only reflect his time but also to embed lightheartedness and humor in his work. Joy, a diptych that is part sculpture, part time capsule, is reminiscent of the grand altarpieces of the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

But Pierce’s altar isn’t as “heavy” in subject matter as those of the 1400s. Rather, his is filled with tenderly carved animal figures, blooming plants and bright colors, and it bursts with energy.

What makes “Politics and Parables” different is the decisive move to display Pierce’s moral and religious carvings side by side with his overtly political works such as 
The White House, Presidents and Convicts and Nixon Being Driven From the White House, which collectively portray momentous events in U.S. history, with references to the Watergate scandal, the Vietnam War, the 1963 March on Washington and the role of the African-American soldier in the Civil War.

Pierce’s raw, human and energized imagery forms a narrative of our recent history and reaches viewers in a way few images can.


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