Sarah and John Freeman, Portland, Maine
Purchased by Akron Art Museum, September 9, 1993
2018: Haslinger galleries, 5/15/18- , Akron Art Museum
2017-2018: Elijah Pierce: An American Journey, 11/23/2017 - 03/04/2018, Canton Museum of Art, Ohio
2007 - 2013: Haslinger galleries, 7/7/07 - 10/27/13, Akron Art Museum
1998: "Self-taught Artists of the Twentieth Century: An American Anthology" Organized by the Museum of American Folk Art, New York, New York
3/10/98 - 5/17/98, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
7/14/98 - 9/20/98, High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Georgia
10/31/98 - 1/24/99, Amon Carter Museum and the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Fort Worth, Texas
1997: "75th Anniversary Celebration of the Collection" 11/8/97 - 2/15/98, Akron Art Museum
1996: "Faith, Face and Form: Works in the Collection by African-Americans" 3/23/96 - 9/11/96, Akron Art Museum
1994: Collection Gallery 4/30/94 - 8/16/94, Akron Art Museum
1993: "Elijah Pierce, Woodcarver" Organized by the Columbus Museum of Art, Columbus, Ohio
1/24/93 - 5/16/1993, Columbus Museum of Art, Columbus, Ohio
6/13/93 - 8/22/93, Studio Museum of Harlem, Harlem, New York
11/13/93 - 12/27/93, Museum of African American Life and Culture, Dallas, Texas
1971: "Elijah Pierce, Carvings" Organized by Ohio State University/Hopkins Hall (No. 2)
10/18/71 - 10/29/71, Hopkins Hall Gallery, Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio
The Wise and Foolish Virgins and Four Other Scenes, around 19425
Collection of the Akron Art Museum
Elijah Pierce, one of Ohio’s most important twentieth-century artists, was the son of a former slave. Although he never received academic art training, he became a master carver, able to bend the wood’s will to his personal expression.
In addition to woodcarving, Pierce had two other vocations—barber and lay preacher. All three intermingled in a relationship unique to African American communities, where the barber shop is a place to receive news and wisdom along with haircuts. Whether preaching in church or offering counsel in his barber shop, Pierce often used his carvings to illustrate his points. Even though he is gone, his art continues to inspire and to preach. “Every piece of work I carve is a message, a sermon," said Pierce.1
The Wise and Foolish Virgins and Four Other Scenes, one of Pierce’s masterpieces, combines five carvings in a single frame, arranged in three horizontal rows, one atop the other like a comic strip. This charming sculpture presents serious messages about forgiveness and the rewards of virtue, vigilance, and faith.
The top third of the work illustrates the parable of the wise and foolish virgins (Matt. 25:1–13), who were to escort a bridegroom through the night to his wedding. Five, shown at the left with unlit lamps, foolishly brought no oil for their lamps, so left to purchase some as the groom approached. Meanwhile, the five wise virgins, lamps lit, led the groom to his wedding. Pierce shows the wise virgins twice: at the top, reclining but remaining vigilant, and at the bottom, in an orderly line ready to march off the right side of the carving. The moral is that one must always be ready, for "ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh."
The left half of the second row describes a tale of forgiveness (John 8:1–11). A woman taken in adultery kneels before Jesus, who exhorts the crowd that he who is without sin must cast the first stone; when no one does, he tells the woman to "go, and sin no more." The story suggests that no one is entirely virtuous and that we are able to choose between rectitude and sin. The latter concept is exemplified by the man in the right half of the second row who holds two hearts, one clean, the other soiled.2
On the left half of the bottom row is a courtroom scene showing two men presenting a case or testifying. Both look toward the highest figure, probably the judge, and point at a lower figure, probably the accused. The inspiration for the carving may have been John 8:17: "It is also written in your [the Pharisees'] law, that the testimony of two men is true." Perhaps the requirement of two witnesses had personal meaning for Pierce, who around 1913 was falsely accused of murdering a white man.3
Following these cautionary tales is Pierce’s final panel, the story of a miracle which is told in each of the Gospels (Matt. 9:1–8, Mark 2:1–12, Luke 5:17–26, and John 5:1–18).4 The scene shows a man "sick with palsy, lying on a bed." Above, to the right, the man, cured of his illness and forgiven his sins, has been told by Christ to "arise, take up thy bed, and go unto thine house."
Pierce's "sermons in wood" were seen mostly by the African American community until 1970, when he was discovered by the art world. National recognition and honors soon followed. Pierce enjoyed this success, but for him, carving remained first and foremost a spiritual mission.
- Barbara Tannenbaum, 2001
1. Elijah Pierce, quoted in Moore, 30.
2. There is no specific biblical text for the image of the clean and soiled heart, but Romans 1:21 mentions hearts darkened by foolishness and sin.
3. Columbus Museum of Art, 238.
4. In Columbus Museum of Art, 236, the scene in the lower right corner is identified as the raising of Lazarus from the tomb (John 11:1–46), which makes no mention of a bed. The story of the man with palsy seems a more likely source, given that the man in Pierce’s carving takes up his bed and walks away.
5. The piece is undated. Boris Gruenwald, who brought Pierce’s work to the attention of the art world, assigned it a 1942 date in exhibition handout Elijah Pierce: Carvings (“Columbus”: not paginated, October 18-19, 1971), where its title is The Wise and Foolish Virgins and The Man with the Clean and Soiled Heart. Stylistically, Gruenwald’s date seems accurate. Most works in that exhibition were not given dates, suggesting that Gruenwald dated pieces only when he had clear evidence. The work is listed as undated in the most comprehensive study of Pierce’s work in print—Columbus Museum of Art, Elijah Pierce: Woodcarver—which also disputes the dating of several other works in Gruenwald’s catalogue. The work was purchased from the artist’s studio by Sarah and John Freeman in 1971 and remained in their hands until the museum purchased it in 1993.
Columbus Museum of Art. Elijah Pierce: Woodcarver. Columbus, Ohio: Columbus Museum of Art, 1992.
Hall, Michael. "Elijah Pierce." In Museum of American Folk Art.Self-Taught Artists of the 20th Century: An American Anthology. New York: Museum of American Folk Art, 1998, 94–97.
Martin Luther King Jr. Center. Amazing Grace: The Life and Work of Elijah Pierce. Columbus, Ohio: Martin Luther King Jr. Center, 1990.
Moore, Gaylen. "The Vision of Elijah." New York Times Magazine, August 26, 1979, 28–30, 34.