April 2010 Issue
Against The Grain
Columbus artist Elijah Pierce spent his life turning raw talent and creative vision into intricate works in wood.
It’s no small task, finding someone whose life is worthy of a one-man play.
That's why discovering Elijah Pierce was like winning the lottery.
Geoffrey Nelson, artistic director of Columbus’ Contemporary American Theatre Company (CATCO
), still recalls the day several years ago when he learned of Pierce while flipping through the pages of a magazine. The article was brief, but memorable: the tale of a pious barber who used his skills with a pocket knife to craft woodcarvings that illustrated Bible stories, and who labored unnoticed for decades in a Columbus barbershop/workshop — cutting hair and chipping wood just blocks from the Columbus Museum of Art — until he was eventually declared one of America’s pre-eminent folk artists.
For Nelson, it was an intriguing introduction — and suggested more than enough material to captivate an audience.
“I thought, there’s probably a good story behind this,” he remembers.
That’s an understatement.
“Pierce To The Soul,” on stage April 7–25 at the Riffe Center’s Studio Two Theatre in Columbus, acquaints Ohioans with a local legend whose long life was just as colorful as his carvings. The 175-seat theater in which actor Alan Bomar Jones channels the late artist (who died in 1984 at age 92) is just the latest setting to provide him a spotlight. From the barbershop decorated with woodcarvings that became a pilgrimage for folk-art enthusiasts, to the National Endowment for the Arts gala where, in 1982, then First Lady Nancy Reagan honored his raw talent, culture mavens have certainly taken notice of Pierce.
But it wasn’t always that way.
“His barbershop had long been a hub of the African-American community in Columbus — the art establishment just didn’t know about it and wasn’t paying attention to it,” says Michael Hall, adjunct curator of American folk art at the Columbus Museum of Art
Hall is more than qualified to critique the shortsightedness of his peers. A longtime art critic, collector and professor who, between 1967 and 1988, assembled a folk art collection that is currently at the Milwaukee Art Museum, Hall has been enlisted by CMA –– home to some 50 Pierce works — to strengthen the museum’s reputation for folk art.
“For the most part, folk art doesn’t find its way into fine-art museums,” he says. “A lot of people associate it with antiques, so it just gets stashed away in historical societies and specialty museums.”
However, when it comes to the subject of Pierce, his expertise merges with treasured memories.
“I remember how gracious and soft-spoken he was,” says Hall, who met the artist in 1971 and remained friends with him for years.
He found Pierce the same way that everyone did: by traveling to the shop on Long Street.
It was there that the artist used his nimble fingers to both ply his trade as a barber and indulge his passion as a woodcarver. Born on a Mississippi plantation in 1892 (his father was a former slave), Pierce learned the nuances of whittling wood from an uncle. He left home while still a teenager, eager to escape farm work and small-town life, and arrived in Columbus in 1924, carrying with him an eighth-grade education, a devout faith instilled by his parents and a gift for seeing potential in ordinary pieces of pine.
The two-room barbershop/gallery that he would operate until 1978 — while also occasionally traveling as a Baptist preacher — was well established within the African-American neighborhood. (Pierce even served as an unofficial mentor to fellow creative visionaries, including Columbus folk artist Aminah Robinson.)
It was only a matter of time until the rest of the world came calling.
Among the curious visitors: one of Hall’s past graduate students, who quickly phoned his former instructor once he saw Pierce’s work.
“He said, ‘If you like folk art, the real deal is here in Columbus, Ohio,’ ” remembers Hall, then the director of the sculpture department at Michigan’s Cranbrook Academy of Art.
“Within a month, I was down there knocking on the door.”
The artistry inside the crowded gallery made even the seasoned expert take notice.
“It was stunning,” says Hall. He vividly recalls how the room was filled with works of wood: major relief carvings, large plaques and hundreds of figurines — all expertly carved and painted in vibrant colors, with many of them depicting religious themes.
One of his best-known works that is part of the museum’s collection is “The Book of Wood.” Completed in 1932, the work features 33 scenes from the life of Christ, with each one carved in bas-relief and the panels bound together and hinged to create a spine.
“He liked to have you stand beside him as he flipped through the ‘pages’ of this book, and he’d preach and talk about his life,” says Hall.
Between Pierce’s penchant for giving away works to visitors, and his growing reputation in the art world — due to praise from outlets such as The New York Times Magazine
, which, in 1979, declared that among the world’s best woodcarvers, “none can equal the power of Pierce’s personal vision” — it wasn’t long before his large number of woodcarvings was whittled down.
“My real treat was being able to see the whole thing when it was still intact,” says Hall. “After a while, that little gallery room was somewhat emptied.”
Fortunately, a play like “Pierce to the Soul” allows his life story to live on.
“He had an impact on so many people in Columbus,” says Nelson.
As the director of the production, both Nelson and playwright Chiquita Mullins Lee have heard about Pierce’s influence on others while staging readings and workshops over the past two years, and inviting local residents to attend.
The anecdotes range from meaningful to amusing. “One of the actors [who performed at a reading] said he used to go into the barbershop and get his haircut in the 1970s, and that Elijah would give the teenagers so much grief about their afros and long hair,” says Nelson.
But all the reminiscences are heartfelt.
No matter how much acclaim he continues to receive around the world for his woodcarvings, Pierce will always be remembered for the gathering place and positive presence he established on Long Street.
“In a lot of ways,” says Nelson, “he represents an entire community.”
When You Go...
Riffe Center Studio Two Theatre
77 S. High St., Columbus 43215