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Elijah Pierce (1892-1984) the son of a former slave, was born in Baldwyn, Mississippi into a deeply religious family. At the age of sixteen he opened a barbershop, and after many years straining against his religious upbringing, finally embraced his traditionalist Christian vocation. He became a minister while continuing to carve and barber, with each practice serving and supporting the other two.
While animals and domestic scenes remembered from his childhood continued to appear in Pierce’s work, he also expertly conveyed stories, sermons, and his own deeply personal spiritual history in the form of carved wood panels.
Pierce was in his seventies by the time museums and collectors began to take note. In 1972 Pierce was shown in the Members’ Penthouse of The Museum of Modern Art and in 1982 he received the National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts, following his inclusion in Black Folk Art in America, 1930–1980 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
Serving as an invaluable record of twentieth-century America, Pierce’s carvings are in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the California African American Museum, among others, and were featured in The High Museum’s exhibition A Cut Above: Wood Sculpture from the Gordon W. Bailey Collection 2016.
“God speaks to me. I know his voice. ‘Elijah, your life is a book, and every day you write a page, and when you are done you won’t be able to deny it because you wrote it yourself.’”
-Elijah Pierce, Elijah Pierce Woodcarver, Columbus Museum of Art, 1992