Elijah Pierce American, 1892-1984


A reflective child, Elijah Pierce loved to walk in the woods with his dog, fish by the creek, play with animals that he would capture and release unharmed, and when his father gave him a pocketknife he enjoyed carving into trees and whittling scraps of wood. His uncle taught him about different wood types and how to work with them, and by age seven Pierce was carving small figures and giving them away to classmates and friends. Born and raised in Baldwyn, Mississippi, he was the youngest son of a farming family, and his father was a former slave. He did not enjoy farmwork, but as a teenager he became interested in barbering, a skill he learned from hanging around a Baldwyn barbershop, where he eventually learned everything about the trade. In his early twenties, Pierce married Zetta Palm, who died in 1915 shortly after the birth of their son, Willie. After drifting around for a few years as an itinerant railroad worker, he was encouraged by his mother to follow his religious calling and in 1920 received his preacher’s license from the Mount Zion Baptist Church in Baldwyn.

Pierce eventually joined the Great Migration to the North and met Cornelia Houeston, in Illinois, and followed her to her hometown of Columbus, Ohio, where they were married in 1923. In Columbus, Pierce continued to preach, found work as a barber, and pursued his carving more seriously; some of his painted carvings became narrative embodiments of his sermons. In the late 1920s Pierce carved a small elephant for Cornelia’s birthday, and she was so pleased with it that he vowed to make her an entire zoo and went on to carve every animal he could think of.

By the early 1930s, Pierce had matured into his signature style, creating wooden bas-reliefs featuring a range of subjects, from biblical tableaux to historical events, and from national heroes (particularly African Americans) to popular culture such as sports, films, and comics. In 1932 he completed the Book of Wood, thirty-three reliefs, each depicting a year in the earthly life of Jesus. A superb example of Pierce’s gift, the Book of Wood is today in the Columbus Museum of Art, which, at more than three hundred pieces, owns the largest collection of Pierce’s work. In 1993 the museum mounted the retrospective exhibition Elijah Pierce, Woodcarver, which included more than 170 pieces and traveled to several other venues.

Cornelia died of cancer in 1948 and Pierce was married a third time, to Estelle Greene, a year after opening his own barbershop in 1951 on Long Street. He continued to preach and hung his works along the walls of his shop. When he retired from barbering in 1978, he carved full time and changed the name of the shop to E. Pierce Art Gallery.

Before the early 1970s, Pierce was unknown outside of his community, but when Boris Gruenwald, a sculptor and graduate student at Ohio State University, discovered Pierce’s work in a Columbus YMCA exhibition, he made it his mission to promote Pierce’s work. In a matter of a few years, Pierce was shown in exhibitions at the Krannert Art Museum at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the Phyllis Kind Gallery (New York), and the Smithsonian American Art Museum (Washington, D.C.). In 1973 Pierce won first prize in the International Meeting of Naive Art in Zagreb (former Yugoslavia). In 1982 the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a National Heritage Fellowship as one of a select group of master folk and traditional artists. After his death the Martin Luther King Jr. Performing and Cultural Arts Complex (Columbus, Ohio) recognized his work by naming the Elijah Pierce Gallery in his honor. Today, Pierce’s work is in the permanent collections of the Akron Art Museum (Ohio), the American Folk Art Museum (New York), the High Museum of Art (Atlanta), the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, and the New Orleans Museum of Art.