William Edmondson was the first black artist to give a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1937. Edmonson had little formal education and grew up near Nashville, Tennessee, with his mother, who worked as a farm worker after the death of Edmondson’s father.
Edmondson believed his work was inspired by God. He began carving tombstones, which later expanded to include sports heroes, birdbaths, and figures from the Bible. During the 1930s, he began carving tombstones for Nashville’s black community out of pieces of limestone that had been thrown away. People who heard the clanking of Edmondson’s hammer would stop by to see his work and purchase limestone.
As a deeply religious man, he was known to create Biblical figures such as Mary and Martha. People beyond Nashville began to recognize his work, and due to that, he had some of his collection pieces displayed in 1927 at the Museum of Modern Art. After the exhibit, a prominent collector purchased some of his pieces; from that point on, Edmondson was known among national art circles.
The fame never seemed to concern Edmondson because he was doing the work of God. Edmondson connected with other artists of the Harlem Renaissance to discuss ideas. He later worked as an artist on Works Progress Administration projects in Nashville. Edmondson went on to give other solo shows. He died in 1951 at the age of 81.