The Book of Elijah Pierce’s Life

 

From an exhibition at the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia in 2020

 

 

Elijah Pierce, 1892-1984, was born on a farm in Baldwyn, Mississippi. 

 

 

 

Elijah’s Birthplace, 1970s, paint on carved wood.  Museum of Everything, London

 

 

His father, a former slave, gave him a penknife when he was seven.  His uncle taught him how to carve complex pieces.  He retained the fondest memory of his childhood even as he did everything to escape a life farming. 

 

 

 

The Place of My Birth, 1977, paint and glitter on carved wood.  Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio 

 

 

After the death of his first wife in 1915 and his father in 1917, already licensed as a preacher, Elijah Pierce decided to move north.  He worked as a barber on the railroad and eventually settled with his second wife in Columbus, Ohio.

 

There he opened his own barber shop. 

 

 

Barber Shop and the Fight Against Evil, 1933, paint on carved wood.  Springfield Museum of Art, Ohio

 

 

He had a wide reputation for the quality of his barbering.

 

 

 

Credit: Kojo Kamau, via Carolyn Allport/Archives of the Columbus Museum of Art.

 

 

Elijah Pierce’s time was not easy.

Through a life made fragile by untrammeled racism, the

Depression, two world wars, war in Korea and Vietnam,

and by the inadequacy of medical and social care systems,

 

 

Elijah Pierce whittled his life in wood.  His work covers three broad areas: 

 

his Christian faith,

his commitment to the Civil Rights movement,

and his observations of the politics and social mores of his day.

 

 

The eye which appears in many of Pierce’s works may be the Masonic eye (The All-Seeing Eye of God).  He became a Freemason once he had settled in Columbus, Ohio.

 

 

 

Christian faith.  Pierce was indifferent to Christianity in his childhood. 

At 17 he had a near-death experience and committed himself from then on to this faith through a variety of conversion experiences.

Becoming a preacher young, he preached throughout his life and used his tableaux in this practice. These often incorporate several different Biblical stories and carry moral injunctions.

 

 

 

The Little White Church, 1936, paint and glitter on carved wood.  Private collection.

 

 

 

His work also showed his commitment to the Civil Rights movement

He himself had been pursued by a mob in 1912 and his brother was killed in 1916 in a racist attack. 

 

 

 

Elijah Escapes the Mob, 1950, paint on carved wood.  Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio 

 

  On July 4, 1912, Elijah Pierce travelled to Tupelo, Mississippi to play baseball.  The day before  a local white man, Bud Perkins, had been killed.  Identified as the killer and then exonerated by an eyewitness, Pierce fled the 17 miles  back to Baldwyn on back roads. 

40 years later, he made this panel. 

 

 

Elijah Pierce was an acute observer of the politics of the day and of social norms and his reflections he transferred to wood. 

 

He bore witness. His work, life and message are one.

 

 

 

Spreading the Light, 1933, paint on carved wood.  Private collection

 

 

 

 

*****************************

 

 

 

 

Matters of Faith

 

 

Your Life is a Book and Every Day is a Page, 1973, paint and glitter on carved wood.  Smithsonian American Museum of Art

In one of the artist’s conversion experiences, he heard God tell him that his life was a book which would one day be read because he had made it. 

 

 

 

 

Angel, paint on wood, paint on carved wood, 1980.  Privately owned. 

Relaxed.  

 

 

 

 

Elijah Pierce’s The Book of Wood, 1932, paint on carved wood, mounted on wood panels. 

Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio from whose website this photo

 

 

 

 

A book of carved Biblical scenes created by the artist after the devastating effects on his business of the Depression, 1932.  He and his wife used these scenes to preach their faith from one place to the other.

 

 

 

 

Noah’s Ark, 1944, paint on carved wood.  Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio

 

 

 

Elijah, (Faith), paint on carved wood, 1953.  Private collection

 

 

 

Nativity, late 1930s or early 1940s, paint on carved wood.  Private collection

 

 

 

The Flight into Egypt, 1940s or ’50s, paint on carved wood.  Promised gift to the Philadelphia Art Museum

 

 

 

 

The Wise and Foolish Virgins and Four Other Scenes, paint and glitter on carved wood, c. 1942.  Akron Art Museum, Ohio

 

 

 

 

Obey God and Live, 1956, paint and marking-pen ink and glitter on carved wood.  Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio

 

 

 

 

Christ and the Lady, paint and glitter on carved wood, 1968.  High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA

 

 

 

 

A diptych, spanning Old and New Testaments, of Bible Stories, c. 1936, paint, glitter and crepe paper on carved wood.  Private collection

 

 

 

 

The Power of Prayer, 1960, paint and glitter on carved wood.  Museum of Everything, London

 

 

 

 

Christ Visited by the Angel in the Garden of Gethsemane, paint and glitter on carved white pine.  Promised gift to the Philadelphia Art Museum

 

 

 

Crucifixion, 1930s or ’40s, enamel and glitter on carved wood.  Museum of Everything, London

 

 

 

 

Christ’s Charge to Peter:  Feed My Sheep, 1932, paint on carved wood.  Private collection

 

 

 

 

I Am the Door, 1978, paint and collage on carved wood.  Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio Museum

 

 

 

 

Christ Performing a Miracle, paint and varnish on carved white pine.  Promised gift to the Philadelphia Museum of Art 

Christ, as Light of the World, restoring a man’s sight and applying mud and then saliva to the man’s eyes.

 

 

 

 

Devil Fishing, Late 1940s, paint and glitter on carved wood.  Private collection

 

 

 

 

Bury the Hatchet, c. 1968.  Private collection

 

 

 

Pilgrim’s Progress, 1938, paint and glitter on carved wood.  Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio

 

 

 

Humility (Christ Blessing), paint on carved wood.  Private collection

 

 

 

 

Prayer, 1966, paint and glitter on carved wood.  Promised gift to the Philadelphia Art Museum

 

 

 

Love (Message Sign), paint on carved wood, 1973.  Private collection

 

 

 

 

Political Commentary

 

 

 

 

The Statue of Liberty, paint on carved wood.  Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio Museum

 

 

 

Abraham Lincoln, c. 1974, paint on carved wood.  American Folk Art Museum, NY

 

 

 

 

Pearl Habour and the African Queen, c. 1941, paint and glitter on carved wood.  Milwaukee Art Museum.

 

  3 stories to caution against complacency and vanity:  the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor; an Aesop tale in which a greedy dog loses his bone in trying to get a larger one.  In the third scene, the African Queen confronts her reflection, encountering herself for the first time.

 

 

 

 

Nixon Being Chased by Inflation, 1974, paint on carved wood.  Museum of Everything, London

 

 

 

 

Republicans and Democrats, 1972, paint on carved wood.  Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio

 

 

 

 

Nixon Being Driven from the White House, 1975, paint and beads on carved wood. Private collection

 

 

 

 

Watergate, 1975, paint and glitter on carved wood. Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio

 

 

 

 

The White House, paint, glitter and rhinestones on carved wood mounted on corrugated cardboard.  Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio 

 

A commemoration of the 1976 bicentennial of the US and a remembrance of the 1963 March on Washington.  Weapons of war surround the crowd.

 

 

 

 

Peace with Honor, 1973, paint and glitter on carved wood.  Smithsonian Museum of American Art. 

This was a Richard Nixon phrase, first used in the campaign of 1968 as a promise to end the Vietnam War.  It was carried through in the discussions which led to the Paris Peace Accord of 1973. 

Elijah Pierce did not believe the politicians when they talked peace and continued amassing weapons of war.

 

 

 

 

John F. Kennedy, 1969, paint on carved wood. Milwaukee Art Museum

 

 

 

 

Social and Historical Commentary

 

 

 

Indians Hunting, 1943, painted wood and glitter on mounted wood panels.  Columbus Museum, Ohio  

 

The artist believed that he had Native American ancestors.

 

 

 

 

 

Slavery Time, 1965-70, paint, glitter and pearl on carved wood. Cincinnati Art Museum

 

 

 

Slavery Time,  1973, paint and glitter on carved wood.  Museum of Everything, London

 

 

 

 

Bad, bad Leroy Brown, 1979, paint on carved wood (the teeth protrude from the surface of this work). Private collection

A song by the Philadelphian, Jim Croce:

Now Leroy he a gambler    And he like his fancy clothes     And he like to wave his diamond rings    In front of everyone’s nose

 

 

 

 

Police Dog, 1971, paint and glitter on carved wood.  Wexner Center for the Arts, Ohio State University, Columbus 

 

The source of this work is an attack, captured in a photo, of an attack on William Gadsden, an African American bystander at a protest in Birmingham Alabama.  A police dog attacked him.

 

 

 

 

Presidents and Convicts, paint on carved wood mounted on corrugated cardboard, 1941.  Museum of Everything, London

 

A chain gang spied in Georgia working along a roadside.

 

 

 

 

Monday Morning Gossip, 1934, paint and glitter on carved wood, mounted on painted wood panel.  Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio

 

 

 

Horse  Racing, 1937-38, paint on carved wood.  Private collection

 

 

 

 

Girl Scouts, 1930-40, paint on carved wood.  Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio

 

 

 

 

Three Ways to Send a Message, c. 1941, paint on carved wood.  High Museum of Art, Atlanta. 

 

Pierce depicts the spread of information by face-to-face exchange, courier and telephone.  In the right side,  the more sober pursuits of George Washington Carver (1860-1943) with the outcome of his work.

 

 

 

 

The Monkey Family (What Monkeys See, Monkeys Do), paint on carved and constructed wood, mounted on cardboard, 1942.  Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio

 

 

 

 

 

?Lewis vs. Braddock, after 1937, paint and glitter on carved wood.  Private collection

 

 

 

Archie Griffin, 1976, paint on carved wood.  Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio

 

 

 

 

Mr. and Mrs. Hank Aaron, 1974, paint on carved wood.  High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA

 

 

 

Carved Compote, c. 1975, paint on carved wood.  American Folk Art, NY

 

 

 

 

Silver, 1982, paint and glitter on carved wood mounted on wood base. Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio

 

 

 

 

Father Time Racing, 1959, paint and glitter on carved wood.  Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio

 

 

 

Father Time, 1940s or 1950s, paint, glitter and varnish on carved white pine mounted on corrugated cardboard.  Promised gift to the Philadelphia Art Museum

 

 

 

 

Your Life is a Book, 1940s, paint on carved wood.  Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio

 

 

 

 

Guard Angel, 1977, paint, glitter, rhinestones and varnish on carved wood.  Private collection

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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