In 2019, John Foster was driving through a neighborhood in St. Louis, Missouri, when a curious front yard decoration caught his eye. Standing in front of someone’s home was a ten-inch-tall sculpture carved from a rough white stone. The work depicted two women sitting side by side, hands folded in their laps and tiny feet poking out from beneath their dresses.
Foster kept driving. But the collector and self-described art enthusiast had a hunch, and a few days later, he returned to knock on the front door and ask the sculpture’s owner, 84-year-old Sally Bliss, if he could take a closer look, reports Sarah Bahr for the New York Times.
Valérie Rousseau, a curator at the American Folk Art Museum (AFAM) in New York City, flew out to St. Louis to examine the carving herself. She confirmed Foster’s suspicions: The sculpture was almost certainly Martha and Mary, a long-lost work by renowned artist William Edmondson.
Martha and Mary’s precise whereabouts had been unknown for decades. The work was displayed at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 1937, when Edmondson became the first Black artist to headline a solo exhibition in the New York cultural institution’s history. It later traveled to Paris before falling off the map.
“It was like finding the Holy Grail,” Foster tells the New York Times. “Edmondson worked in Nashville, so who would ever dream that a piece would be in St. Louis?”
The son of formerly enslaved parents, Edmondson was born on a Nashville plantation around 1874. According to the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM), which holds five of Edmondson’s sculptures in its collections, he worked as a janitor, fireman and hospital orderly before switching to part-time work in the early 1930s, living in his family home and selling vegetables from his garden.
Around 1934, Edmondson reportedly received a vision that would shape the rest of his life. The 60-year-old claimed that he was divinely inspired to begin sculpting. At roughly the same time, an unknown person discarded a pile of limestone on his lawn—a “gift from heaven,” as he described it in interviews.
Edmondson began chiseling tombstones for clients from his neighborhood and church. He also started developing his own sculptural designs, drawing inspiration from the Bible and his own life, per an AFAM statement.
The recently rediscovered work, Martha and Mary, is thought to depict two sisters described in a biblical parable. In the story, Jesus Christ has just arrived in the siblings’ home. Mary sits and listens to Jesus while her sister anxiously readies the house for guests—until Jesus reprimands her, noting that “Mary has chosen what is better.”
Edmondson depicts the two women sitting side by side, as if Martha has settled down to listen to Jesus’ preaching. The story was likely one of Edmondson’s favorites, as he returned to the subject at least eight times throughout his career, writes Sarah Cascone for Artnet News.
MoMA promoted Edmondson’s work while also adopting a patronizing attitude toward the artist, who had never been formally trained. A press release from the museum’s 1937 show describes Edmondson in stereotypical, racist terms: “simple, almost illiterate, entirely unspoiled” and a “modern primitive.” The latter phrase refers to a Eurocentric notion, popular among elite 20th-century artists such as Pablo Picasso, that non-white artists possessed a raw or undeveloped artistic talent—a theory undergirded by colonial racial hierarchies and white supremacy, as art historians Charles Cramer and Kim Grant explain for Khan Academy.
The same press release erroneously claims that Edmondson exclusively sculpted biblical figures. In reality, the artist drew on a wide range of sources. Owls, rabbits, rams, lions, choir girls, preachers, comic-book characters, hospital nurses, Nashville school teachers and Eleanor Roosevelt all featured in his art, according to SAAM.
Edmondson skillfully arranged his finished sculptures in the tall grass of his front yard, where they caught the eye of literary elites from nearby Vanderbilt University. Photographer Louise Dahl-Wolfe eventually introduced Edmondson to MoMA director Alfred H. Barr Jr., who was so impressed that he organized the 1937 MoMA show. Some of the works exhibited at MoMA traveled to Paris for the museum’s “Three Centuries of American Art” exhibition, which was held at the Jeu de Paume museum in 1938, per the AFAM statement.
“[Edmondson’s] art was quickly embraced by the local art community, then admired nationally,” Rousseau tells Artnet News.
All told, Edmondson created some 300 sculptures in his lifetime. Despite holding another solo show at the Nashville Art Gallery in 1941, the sculptor received relatively small sums for his works, and he struggled financially in the years leading up to his death in February 1951.
According to SAAM, Edmondson was buried in an unmarked grave in Mount Ararat Cemetery, on the outskirts of Nashville. A fire later destroyed records of his grave, leaving his precise burial site unknown.
Bliss acquired the sculpture through her late husband, Anthony A. Bliss, who served as executive director of the Metropolitan Opera and whose family members were avid art collectors. She inherited Martha and Mary when her husband died and displayed the work outside her New York home. Bliss later brought the statue with her when she moved to St. Louis with her second husband, she tells Fox 2’s Patrick Clark.
After news of the discovery broke, contemporary street artist KAWS (Brian Donnelly) decided to purchase the sculpture as a promised gift for AFAM, where he is a member of the board of trustees. KAWS and the museum declined to say how much the artist paid for the sculpture. But as Artnet News notes, Edmondson currently holds the record for the most expensive work of “Outsider Art” ever sold at auction: His sculpture Boxer went under the hammer at Christie’s for $785,000 in 2016.
Eighty-four years after it was last seen by the public, Martha and Mary will once again go on view. Newly cleaned and conserved, the sculpture is set to make its 21st-century debut in AFAM’s “Multitudes” exhibition, which opens on January 21, 2022.
In the statement, KAWS expresses hope that news of the work’s rediscovery will boost awareness of Edmondson’s oeuvre.
“As an admirer of William Edmondson’s work, I’m happy this sculpture will have a home at the American Folk Art Museum, where a wider audience might also discover the importance of this incredible artist,” he says.