Renowned folk artist and wood carver, Elijah Pierce (1892-1984), the youngest son of a former slave, was born on a cotton farm in Baldwyn, Mississippi. Under the instruction of his uncle, Lewis Wallace, Elijah learned to carve wood at the young age of 7 using a pocketknife that his father gave him. Full of devotion as a husband, preacher, and barber, his life-long practice of woodcarving and talents as an artist were only discovered publicly during the last decade of his life.
From small branches to tree trunks, as a little boy he carved anything and everything he could get his hands on. His childhood adventures, exploring the woods and outdoors of northeastern Mississippi, inspired his earliest works: small woodcarvings of farm animals that he would lovingly gift to classmates. As he matured into his adolescence, Elijah pursued his artistic and worldly curiosity beyond life on a farm, train-hopping and working temporary railroad jobs while also training as a barber to make a living. The years that would follow would be nomadic and filled with the admiration of women he encountered in his travels. In his early twenties, Elijah met and fell for Zetta Palm, the woman who would be his first wife and soon die in 1915 shortly after giving birth to their first son, Willie. The devastation of his first love’s death brought Elijah back home to Mississippi to spend much needed time with his mother, who influenced his pursuits as a preacher. In 1920, Elijah became a licensed preacher at his home church of Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Baldwyn.
His next move in 1923 would be prompted by a woman he met outside of Chicago in Illinois, Cornelia Houeston, taking him to Columbus, Ohio, where he would spend the majority of his adult life. As he continued to carve more seriously, he engaged in his other avocations, working as a barber and preaching at Baptist churches throughout the Midwest. A turning point for his woodcarvings occurred when, one day, Elijah made an elephant out of a piece of wood he found. He gave it to his wife and she loved it so dearly that he promised to make her a whole zoo’s worth of carvings. Elijah stayed true to his word and carved many different animals, most of which he gave away as his he did generously with much of his work. His wife Cornelia and he would travel during the summers to present his carvings at churches, shops, and small businesses around the country.
His work as a preacher greatly influenced his woodcarvings as his small wooden animals often carried biblical narratives. What was perhaps one of his greatest works, The Book of Wood, parts of which are currently displayed at the Columbus Museum of Art, illustrates 33 scenes of from the life of Christ and was completed in 1932. The Book of Wood would prove to be of great importance for both Elijah, Cornelia, and their marriage; they would hold intimate demonstrations of the work in their home. In 1948, Elijah’s beloved wife tragically passed away from cancer.
Elijah continued to move forward despite the death of his dear love, opening his very own barbershop in 1951 and marrying his third wife, a younger woman named Estelle Greene, a year later. Estelle reinforced Elijah’s continued efforts as an artist and he worked endlessly developing a larger body of work that depicted non-religious activities as well. He illustrated sporting events and revealed much about the African-American experience without overtly identifying his subjects as one race or another. Elijah was also an influential figure in his community, ensuring that his barbershop was not simply a business, but a space for exchange, gathering, and discussion.
His work finally began to receive public attention in the 1970s, after a sculptor studying at Ohio State University noticed his work at an exhibition at the local YMCA in Columbus. Within several years of this discovery, Elijah was recognized nationally by the country’s most prestigious arts and cultural institutions. In the last decade of his life, Elijah was invited to exhibit his work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the National Museum of American Art, the Renwick Gallery, Bernard Danenberg Galleries, the Phyllis Kind Gallery of New York, and the Krannert Art Museum, among others. He would soon receive accolades from the New York Times Magazine and the Whitney Museum. In 1973, he was awarded first prize in the International Meeting of Naïve Art in Zagreb, Yugoslavia and in 1982, the National Endowment for the Arts honored him as one of 15 master traditional artists to participate in the National Heritage Fellowship.
Following his death in 1984, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Performing and Cultural Arts Complex named the Elijah Pierce Gallery in his honor. The majority of his body of work, about 300 of his pieces, are currently housed and can be viewed at The Columbus Museum of Art. The Ohio Arts Council posthumoulsy awarded Elijah Pierce the prestigious Governor’s Heritage Award.