In honor of Black History Month, we’ll be posting regular features about African American artists in Crystal Bridges’ permanent collection.
Mary Edmonia Lewis (ca. 1844– after 1909) sculpted stories of oppression, pride, and courage. Characterized by an awareness of classical marble sculpture, her work evolved the medium through her passionate depiction of literary stories. Lewis was a courageous pioneer in her own right. Born to a Chippewa mother and an African American father in approximately 1844, her identity in America was shrouded by her ethnic background, making it exceptionally difficult to pursue her passion. Despite these challenges, she is recognized today as the first female African American sculptor.
Financed and encouraged by her gold-miner brother, Lewis’s education began at Oberlin College in 1859. Although Oberlin was one of the first colleges to except women and African Americans, her time there was scarred by turmoil. Accused and acquitted of poisoning two of her white roommates, she received a life-threatening beating by a mob of white vigilantes, and she was later unable to graduate because of an accusation that she had stolen art supplies from the school. Lewis left Oberlin and moved to Boston to begin her career, and after a brief stay, she took a trip to Europe at the suggestion of her brother. London, Paris, and Florence rang to her, not for the city life, but because of their passionate exploration of art and history.
“I was practically driven to Rome in order to obtain the opportunities for art culture, and to find a social atmosphere where I was not constantly reminded of my color. The land of liberty had not room for a colored sculptor”
Lewis needed physical distance to create; Rome gave that to her. The inspiration of classical sculpture infiltrated her mind, and her depictions of Native Americans and African Americans morphed with figures of European origin. This juxtaposition created a dialogue about the human rights of all people, rather than conforming to ethnological models that related to ethnic stereotypes.
Lewis’ humanistic approach to art connected with people regardless of their ethnicity and unintentionally turned her into an emblem of the abolitionist movement in America. Although we know little about the facts of her life, or even when and where she died, her sculptures weave together the convoluted stories of American identity.
This article first appeared in C magazine, the publication for Crystal Bridges Members, in April, 2016.
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