Elijah Pierce, Outsider Artist, Finds a Spotlight at the Right Time

This article is part of our latest Fine Arts & Exhibits special report, which focuses on how art endures and inspires, even in the darkest of times.

The Barnes Foundation’s new exhibition of wood carvings and other works by Elijah Pierce has been in the planning stages for almost two years, but arriving in late 2020, it has a particular political resonance.

In the exhibition’s catalog, Thom Collins, the executive director of the Barnes, said the Philadelphia museum sought “not to repaint Pierce as an activist, a term he would likely reject, but to present his aesthetic themes and philosophical concerns as ones that were, and are, vital and relevant. Like that of any great artist, Pierce’s body of work invites deep reflection. His wood carvings compel us to consider the complexities of what it means to be alive and to bear witness to our present moment.”

Zoé Whitley, director of the Chisenhale Gallery in London and the Pierce exhibition's co-curator, said she was “constantly impressed” with Mr. Pierce’s wit. The Barnes features over 100 works he made from 1923 to 1979 and — for an artist whose most recent piece in this exhibit was created over 40 years ago — “he really had a superlative ability to make comments about current events,” Dr. Whitley said. “He was an artist profoundly connected to the world.”

Born the son of an enslaved man on a farm in Baldwyn, Miss., in 1892, Mr. Pierce moved north in 1919 during the Great Migration. He eventually became a preacher and barber in Columbus, Ohio, opening a barbershop in 1954, which became a social hub and a studio and gallery for his work. Mr. Pierce died in 1984, two years after receiving a National Heritage Fellowship for lifetime achievement from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Mr. Pierce’s wood carvings often featured American presidents, including George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter and John F. Kennedy. Most were depicted positively, though his 1975 piece “Nixon Being Driven from the White House” features the president being chased, according to the Barnes, possibly by the Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. also was a frequent subject; in the exhibition, he is the central figure of “Love (Martin Luther King, Jr.),” a work from 1968, in which he is seated next to a sign that says “Love,” protected by an angel with outstretched arms. He is also one of three figures in “Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Kennedy Brothers” (1977); they sit in front of a red, white and blue striped background, beneath three gold stars.

Mr. Pierce’s subjects were not always secular. One of the most striking works in the exhibition is his seven-panel “The Book of Wood,” which is part of the collection of the Columbus Museum of Art. The piece depicts biblical scenes, including the Nativity; the flight into Egypt; the entry into Jerusalem; and an angel at Christ’s empty tomb.

According to the Barnes Foundation, a 1939 newspaper article says that Mr. Pierce made the “The Book of Wood” after his business was “cut through by the devastating effect of the Depression.” The museum said that Mr. Pierce’s wife, Cornelia, came up with the idea for the “The Book of Wood” and helped paint its pages. The couple traveled around the country exhibiting the work and requesting donations to see it; Mr. Pierce also preached. He later kept the work in his barbershop, turning its pages for his clients to discuss the stories they illustrate.

Sheldon Bonovitz, a Philadelphia lawyer, is a trustee of the Barnes and a collector of outsider art with his wife, Jill, a sculptor. The couple lent the exhibition 16 works by Mr. Pierce, including “Love (Martin Luther King, Jr.),” and their foundation underwrote its catalog.

Mr. Bonovitz said Mr. Pierce’s “extraordinary range of subject matter, brilliance in composition and carving, and very direct presentation” were what appeal to him, adding, “What you see is what you get.”

Given Mr. Pierce’s subject matter and his approach, an exhibition in 2020 couldn’t be more timely. “He was a person who had a deep political consciousness and keen political awareness, and was also a pacifist and deeply religious,” Mr. Bonovitz said. “He speaks very much to contemporary times.”

Mr. Collins called the exhibition especially meaningful, characterizing Dr. Albert C. Barnes, the museum’s founder and an inventor of Argyrol, an antiseptic, as “a fierce advocate for the civil rights of African-Americans, women and the economically marginalized.”

While the museum’s permanent collection contains canvases by formally trained artists such as Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and Paul Cézanne, it also exhibits artists with little or no formal training, such as Paul Gauguin, Horace Pippin and Henri Rousseau. All are displayed alongside household items such as wrought-iron objects and furniture, thus “overturning traditional hierarchies to reveal universal elements of human expression,” noted Dr. Whitley and Nancy Ireson, the museum’s chief curator and the exhibition co-curator.

For Mr. Pierce, the journey to institutional recognition has been a long but steady one, as his work has found a succession of diligent champions.

Carolyn Allport, a Los Angeles-based teaching artist in theater and performance, was introduced to Mr. Pierce’s work as a graduate student at The Ohio State University in Columbus in 1971.

She joined the education department of the Columbus Gallery of Fine Arts (forerunner of the Columbus Museum of Art) in 1972 and convinced the museum’s leadership to let her curate what became the first major exhibition of Mr. Pierce’s work, in 1973. She later made two films about the artist, whom she describes as her “mentor, inspiration and friend” as well as being the godfather of one of her sons, in 1974 and 1980. The films are being shown on a TV screen in the exhibition.

Noting that Mr. Pierce’s authenticity appealed to her, Ms. Allport commended him for persisting through so many challenges. “He took the carving he loved doing and made his pastime into something more,” she said. “His carving was a testament to his faith.”

“The older I get, the more I realize how incredible he was,” Ms. Allport said, adding that she hoped the Barnes exhibition would introduce young people of color to the artist and inspire them, as he did her.

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