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

Overview

One night in the early 1930s, William Edmondson, the son of former slaves and a janitor in Nashville, Tennessee, heard God speaking to him. And so he began to carve – tombstones, birdbaths, and stylized human figures, whose spirits seemed to emerge fully formed from the stone. Soon Edmondson’s talents caught the eye of prominent members of the art world, and in 1937 he became the first black artist to have a solo exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

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Overview

One night in the early 1930s, William Edmondson, the son of former slaves and a janitor in Nashville, Tennessee, heard God speaking to him. And so he began to carve – tombstones, birdbaths, and stylized human figures, whose spirits seemed to emerge fully formed from the stone. Soon Edmondson’s talents caught the eye of prominent members of the art world, and in 1937 he became the first black artist to have a solo exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Here, in twenty-three free-verse poems, award-winning poet Elizabeth Spires gives voice to Edmondson and his creations, which tell their individual stories with wit and passion. With stunning photographs, including ten archival masterpieces by Louise Dahl-Wolfe and Edward Weston, this is a compelling portrait of a truly original American artist.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“The larger questions—what is it that art, in various media, can show us—appeal to a broad audience, on beyond our fascination with this one artist.” —ChicagoTribune

“Simple and powerful.” —The New York Observer

“A beautiful book.”—The Charlotte Observer

“Spires has presented readers with a delightful glimpse into the life and work of a relative unknown. This is a special book.” —STARRED, School Library Journal

“Spires . . . has crafted a memorable tribute to an important artist through words dexterously pulled from stone.” —BookPage

“A veritable treasure.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Will encourage both youth and adult readers to explore the rich interplay between poetry and art.” —Booklist

“Though the concept is sophisticated as well as imaginative, Spires’ eloquent verses are certainly accessible to young readers, and they’re effective blends of the concrete and the imaginative; while playfulness predominates in the poetry as art, there’s a sense of wonder and a vivid respect for the artist that underpins the humor.” —Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books

“A Beautiful book pairing Spires’ poems with photos of the self-taught sculptor who became the first black artist to have a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art.”—St. Petersburg Times

Publishers Weekly

Of interest to adults as well as children, this handsomely produced black-and-white book intriguingly combines photography, sculpture and poetry. The illiterate child of freed slaves, William Edmondson (1874-1951) experienced religious visions from the age of 13 or 14. At 57, hearing a voice "telling me/ to pick up my tools/ and start to work on a tombstone," he began carving limestone; he became, in 1937, the first African-American to have a solo show at New York's Museum of Modern Art. Four of Spires's (The Mouse of Amherst) poems are taken verbatim from interviews with the artist, but elsewhere the poet mimics Edmondson's homespun language to remarkable effect, and creates narrative voices for Edmondson's sculpted characters, photos of which are shown facing the poems. The subjects include an "Angel with a Pocketbook," Eleanor Roosevelt and a rabbit who explains how Edmondson "thunked me with his hammer./...He reached in with his fingers,/ ... and drew me right out/ of that chunk of limestone!" The immediacy in Spires's poems will speak to young readers, although the appeal of Edmondson's weighty, primitive figures may be more apparent to adults. Portraits of Edmondson by luminaries Louise Dahl-Wolfe and Edward Weston make a lingering impression. All ages. (Feb.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
School Library Journal

Gr 7 Up

In 23 poems, Spires pays homage to a little-known folk sculptor, William Edmondson. Born on a former plantation outside Nashville in 1874, he was well into his 50s and had spent nearly a lifetime in a variety of jobs ranging from racehorse swipe to janitor when he heard God speaking to him. In the vision, God told him to pick up his tools and carve leftover bits of stone into a tombstone. This divine directive would lead Edmondson to create not only tombstones, but also sculptures and become the first black artist to have a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Each of Spires's poems is accompanied by a full-page, black-and-white photograph, either of Edmondson or of one of his works. Poems paired with photographs of the sculptor weave in some of the artist's own words to flesh out his biography. In poems paired with images of his works, the verse gives voice to the piece itself. The "Three Crows," for example, proclaim "'cause Will made us /cooler than cool, three crows/looking over your shoulder.'" Though this personification feels forced or simplistic in a poem or two, in others the simplicity matches the unassuming nature of the subject itself. All in all, Spires has presented readers with a delightful glimpse into the life and work of a relative unknown. This is a special book.-Jill Heritage Maza, Greenwich High School, CT

Kirkus Reviews
Born to freed slaves near Nashville circa 1870 and unschooled, Edmondson began sculpting in limestone in his late 50s. In his own words, it was "God telling me what to do." He began fashioning tombstones and later created statues of rabbits and mermaids, Eleanor Roosevelt and Jack Johnson. In this dignified, handsome volume, beautifully reproduced full-page black-and-white photographs face Spires's poems. The 23 verses give voice not only to Edmondson but also to his works, ranging from somber to spiritual to whimsical. "Three Crows" are "singing a song, crooning a tune, / cawing 'cause we like to." Edmondson was the first black artist to have a one-man show at the Museum of Modern Art, but, ironically for a carver of headstones, the actual location of his grave has been lost. Readers with a love for art history, photography and African-American studies will find a veritable treasure here. Teachers and librarians take note, though: There are no bells and whistles, only a quiet elegance born of respect and admiration. (author's note, resources) (Poetry. 12 and up)
The Barnes & Noble Review
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. --Barbara Spindel
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374335281
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 2/2/2009
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 64
  • Sales rank: 1,409,555
  • Age range: 10 - 14 Years
  • Product dimensions: 8.70 (w) x 10.50 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

ELIZABETH SPIRES, the recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award, is the author of six poetry collections for adults, and the children’s book The Mouse of Amherst. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland.

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Table of Contents

A Vision

The Gift

A Conversation

Girl Thinking

Adam and Eve

Miss Louisa

Jack Johnson

Porch Ladies

Eleanor Roosevelt

Shoes

Rabbit

Talking Owl

Old Turtle

Three Crows

Nieces and Nephews

Birdbath

Mermaid

Hands

A Tombstone Talks

Angel with a Pocketbook

Ice

Ararat

Wisdom

About William Edmondson

Selected Bibliography

Photo Credits and Acknowledgments

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