Elijah Pierce (1892-1984)

Folk and Self-Taught Art

Elijah Pierce was recognized as America's foremost wood carver of 20th century folk art by Dr. Robert Bishop, founding Director of the Museum of American Folk Art. The artist was born in Baldwin, Mississippi, where he was raised on a farm. Elijah began to carve at the age of seven. His maternal uncle, Lewis Wallace, was a chair and basket maker. He taught Elijah how to work with wood. He also enjoyed baseball and dancing. In 1920, Elijah was issued a preacher's license. Pierce followed his girlfriend, Cornelia Houeston to Columbus in 1923, where he became a barber and married Cornelia. During the 1930s and 1940s, he preached throughout the Midwest and South during the summers at carnivals and fairs. He often brought his carvings along with him to use as teaching tools.

The subjects of Pierce's carvings are religious narratives pertaining to the Old and New Testament of the Bible, African-inspired fables, Freemasonry symbols, African-American heroes (Abe Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Joe Louis, etc.), and a veritable "Noah's Ark" of animals. His early carvings from the 1920s through the 1940s were spare, concise, flat, and mellow in coloration. The carvings created later, in the 1950s and 1960s, were more complex compositionally, more rounded in form, and more deeply incised than his earliest carvings. As Elijah's work became better known to the local and national art community in the early 1970s, his repertoire of subjects expanded, partially to accommodate his admirers to whom he gave many fine small free standing carvings as mementos. Also, his narrative carvings broadened in subject matter to chronicle the uneasy racial and political environment associated with the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, and Watergate. He also depicted more popular images, such as Archie Griffin, the Heisman trophy winner from The Ohio State University. 

Pierce's wry wit and keen insight into the temptations of modern, media-driven life is evident in many of his carvings from the 1960s through the early 1980s. As the artist began to lose his dexterity and became weaker in the late 1970s, he met a young folk artist, Leroy Almon, who became his friend and protege. 
 

Selected Permanent Collections:

Akron Museum of Art, Ohio
The Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio
High Museum of Art, Atlanta
Milwaukee Art Museum, Wisconsin
Museum of Folk Art, New York
The National Museum of American Art, Washington, D.C.
The New Orleans Museum of Art, Louisiana
Schumacher Gallery, Capital University, Columbus, Ohio
The Wexner Center for the Arts, The Ohio State University, Columbus

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