Elijah Pierce's America
Elijah Pierce’s America presents the rarely seen works of virtuoso woodcarver Elijah Pierce (1892–1984). Accompanying a landmark exhibition at the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia, this lavish publication celebrates Pierce's rich and varied body of work. As the first substantial book on Elijah Pierce to be published in more than twenty-five years, this catalogue marks a new phase of the artist’s critical reception.
Born on a farm in Baldwyn, Mississippi, Pierce joined the Great Migration and settled in Columbus, Ohio, in 1924. After years spent working as a barber and preacher, he opened his own barbershop in 1954, which became a social hub and functioned as his studio. A virtuoso woodcarver, Pierce created a unique body of work over the course of 50 years, producing works of art in moments between cutting hair. His work features remarkable narratives – religious parables, autobiographical scenes, episodes from American politics, and includes figures from sports and film – with subjects ranging from Richard Nixon to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and from Hank Aaron to Warren Beatty. In 1984, Pierce told the Columbus Dispatch: “I’d carve anything that was a picture in my mind. I thought a pocketknife was about the best thing I’d ever seen.”
Elijah Pierce's America features approximately 100 rarely seen works created between 1923 and 1979, including painted bas-reliefs and freestanding carvings. Using wood, corrugated cardboard, crepe paper, house paint, aluminum foil, glitter, and rhinestones, Pierce created extraordinary objects that expressed his faith, values, and perspective on the world. His art reflects the complexities of life in 20th-century America.
“In Elijah Pierce’s America, we are looking at Pierce as the artist he was—not as a ‘folk’ or ‘outsider’ artist simply because he was self-taught,” says exhibition co-curator Zoé Whitley. “One of our goals with this exhibition is to raise key questions about the writing of art history: are self-taught artists automatically considered ‘outsider’ even if they were denied formal education by circumstance and social status? Within the history of early 20th-century art, how can we begin to recontextualize the contributions and innovations of self-taught artists? Through his woodcarvings, Pierce not only succeeded in telling a personal history alongside the history of African American people, but also revealed a dynamic visual history of the United States.”
Co-published by the Barnes Foundation and Paul Holberton Publishing, this beautifully illustrated exhibition catalogue features essays by co-curators Nancy Ireson and Zoé Whitley, as well as contributions from Dr. Sampada Aranke of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, artist Theaster Gates and Michael D. Hall, Adjunct Curator of Folk and Self-Taught Art at the Columbus Museum of Art in Ohio. This publication is made possible by a generous grant from the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Foundation.
Edited by Nancy Ireson and Zoé Whitley
Hardback, 280 x 240 mm
208 pages, 120 illustrations
The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia
27 September 2020 – 10 January 2021
In the press
"[Pierce's] wood carvings—elaborate, detailed, and painted—speak to American political and cultural history. . . . Previously presented in museums in the context of folk or self-taught art, this show and catalog reconsider his work in relation to mainstream art histories." —Culture Type
"The Barnes has produced a comprehensive catalogue for the exhibition adding a significant new contribution to the understanding of this artist." —Forbes
"Witness the celebration of a remarkable, self-taught woodcarver..." —The Wall Street Journal
"...brings us temptation, salvation, grace" —The Philadelphia Inquirer
"Given Mr. Pierce’s subject matter and his approach, an exhibition in 2020 couldn’t be more timely." —The New York Times
"vital, joyous, and important work" —Hyperallergic