Examples rising from humble beginnings in Baldwyn’s past are numerous – war heroes, captains of industry, Christian missionaries, self-less teachers, political leaders, renowned artists. One such example is Elijah Pierce.
If you happen to be in Columbus, Ohio, this winter, take the time to visit the Columbus Museum of Art. There you will find a special exhibition featuring the work of renowned folk artist, Elijah Pierce. The Essential Elijah Pierce, an in-depth look at the museum’s extensive Pierce collection, will be on display until February 16. Pierce’s wood carvings and sculptures, with subject matter taken from the Bible, folktales, and contemporary events, are considered some of the most individual, personal, whimsical, and spiritual ever produced by an American folk artist.
Elijah Pierce, the youngest son of former slave Richard Pierce, was born in Baldwyn, Mississippi, on March 5, 1892.
By the age of seven, Elijah would use a pocket knife his father had given him to carve animals from the wooden scraps he found along the creek banks near the farm where he lived. He would usually give away his creations, to children at school or others who appreciated the carvings, a practice he continued throughout his life. Pierce’s uncle, Lewis Wallis, was a particular inspiration to the young Elijah, giving him valuable instruction on which types of wood worked best for carving and simply how to enjoy the art.
In his teens, Elijah decided that farming was not for him, choosing barbering instead, since it was a skill that could stick with a person wherever he ended up. He learned the trade in Baldwyn, hanging around his neighborhood barber shop in the early 1900’s.
In 1914, Elijah married Zetta Palm, but his first marriage sadly ended in tragedy. Zetta died after only a year, shortly following the birth of their son Willie in 1915. As a result, Pierce began to live a hobo-like existence, working as an itinerant laborer for the railroad. Still, he would visit his mother Nellie in Baldwyn, who consistently encouraged Elijah to follow the religious calling she knew he had experienced.
Heeding his mother’s advice, Elijah Pierce received his preacher’s license from his home church – Baldwyn’s Mt. Zion Baptist Church – in 1920.
Soon, however, Elijah joined the steady migration of young African-Americans to the northern cities. He met and fell in love with his second wife Cornelia Houeston, and they were married in Columbus, Ohio, her home town, where Elijah found work as a barber and lay minister.
In Columbus, Pierce began to carve wood seriously, making a zoo-full of animals for Cornelia and others in the community. In 1932, Pierce completed the Book of Wood which he considered his best work. The book, a bas-relief series originally carved as individual scenes, tells the story of Jesus. Cornelia and Elijah would hold “sacred art demonstrations” to deliver the book’s tale of sacrifice and salvation to those who needed to hear. But again tragedy would strike Elijah when he lost Cornelia to cancer in 1948.
A new chapter in Elijah’s life would begin in 1951 when he opened his own barbershop at 483 E. Long Street in Columbus. His shop was a hospitable gathering place where customers would come to discuss the life of the local community and the nation. There on Long Street, Elijah displayed not only his religious carvings but also works that revealed his love of baseball, boxing, comics and the movies and an appreciation for legendary heroes who had fought for justice and liberty. Through his carvings, Pierce also told his own life story and chronicled the African-American experience. However, he seldom distinguished the race of his figures; he thought of them as “everyman.”
In the early 1970’s, Pierce’s art finally became known outside the local Columbus community. Boris Gruenwald, a sculptor and graduate student at Ohio State, discovered Elijah’s work and organized several important exhibitions for him. Soon, Pierce became known both nationally and internationally in the world of folk art, receiving many honors and awards. In 1982, the National Endowment for the Arts presented Elijah Pierce with a National Heritage Fellowship as one of 15 master traditional artists. After Elijah’s death in 1984, the Martin Luther King Jr. Performing and Cultural Arts Complex recognized his lifetime body of 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.
This twice-widowed native of Baldwyn, Mississippi, the son of a former slave, did not simply survive 92 years. Elijah Pierce impacted the world around him with his art and with his kind, gentle, and humorous spirit. Baldwyn can take pride in the life and work of barber, minister and artist, Elijah Pierce.