I Heard God Talking to Me: William Edmondson and His Stone Carvings

By ELIZABETH SPIRES

William Edmondson, born in Tennessee to former slaves in 1874, experienced religious visions throughout his life, and sometime when he was in his late 50s, he said that God had instructed him to carve stone. He started with tombstones but eventually began sculpting human and animal figures, usually working with scavenged pieces of limestone. Elizabeth Spires’ lovely book pairs photographs of Edmondson and his minimal, squat, yet elegant work with poems she has written, some assuming Edmondson’s voice, others the voices of his creations. Accompanying the photograph of “Seated Girl” is the poem “Girl Thinking,” in which the sculpture describes being a hunk of stone waiting for Edmondson to shape her. “Make me a girl, I wished. / A girl with a space of quiet around her, / a girl with time to dream her dreams. / And he did. He did!” Several of the poems are composed entirely of Edmondson’s own words, which effectively convey his inspiration: “I’se just doing the Lord’s work. / It ain’t got much style. / God don’t want much style, / but He gives you wisdom / and speeds you along.” In 1937 Edmondson became the first black artist to have a solo show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art; several of his hand-carved tombstones still dot the hills of a small cemetery outside of Nashville.