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“Elijah Pierce’s America” opened last month at The Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, PA. The major retrospective focuses on the work of woodcarver Elijah Pierce (1892-1984) and is the first outside of his hometown Columbus, OH, in more than a quarter-century.
Pierce’s remarkable woodcarvings—which he made between cutting hair at the barbershop he owned—explored politics, religion, figures in sports and film, as well as his own life. “I’d carve anything that was a picture in my mind. I thought a pocketknife was about the best thing I’d ever seen,” he said to the Columbus Dispatch in 1984.
On view through January 10, 2021, are over 100 rarely seen painted bas-reliefs and carvings made from 1923-1979. Of note are works like Joy (1930s-1940s) and Bible Stories (c.1936), inspired by Pierce’s biography and his calling as a pastor; allegorical pieces like Monkeys at a Card Table (1938-1940), and his best known The Book of Wood (1932), a volume of biblical scenes.
Working with wood, corrugated cardboard, crepe paper, house paint, aluminum foil, glitter, and rhinestones Pierce expressed his own experiences and perspectives, reflecting the dynamics of the last century. “Through his woodcarvings, Pierce not only succeeded in telling a personal history alongside the history of African American people but also revealed a dynamic visual history of the United States,” said Zoé Whitley, Director of Chisenhale Gallery London and co-curator of the exhibition.