The woodcarver of Long Street on faith, lynch mobs, train hopping and his late-in-life discovery as a serious artist

Editor's note: For Columbus Monthly's inaugural June 1975 issue, Betsa Marsh, then the editor of a weekly newspaper in Canal Winchester and now a Cincinnati-based travel writer, interviewed legendary Columbus folk artist Elijah Pierce, who died on this day in 1984. 

“I've been running from preaching for 20 years," Elijah Pierce said with a slow grin, "and my second wife used to say I had to carve every sermon I never preached. I guess the good Lord put me on the wood pile."

And at 83 years old, Pierce, the son of a Mississippi slave, is indisputably on top of the carvers' woodpile. After the 1973 Naivi international folk arts exhibition in Zagreb, Yugoslavia, the barber of Long Street was proclaimed "King of the World's Woodcarvers."

"I have a God-given talent," Pierce said from a chair in his two-seater barber shop in Downtown Columbus, "and the Lord wants me to tell people his message. I'm not a spokesman, but when you tell the truth, it'll stand anywhere."

Pierce's truth for most of his life has been his pocket knife, with which he carves primitive masterpieces from subjects he knows best—animals, nature and the Bible. He carves between stints of barbering, the trade he learned as a youth in Mississippi. Whether the medium is hair or wood, his hands are agile and capable.

“I've been doing barbering and carving so long they both come natural," Pierce said. "When I was about eight or nine, I would work all day for a pocket knife. Then my dog and I would go down to the creek bank and fish and whittle. I'd pick a tree that had soft bark, maybe a beech, and carve anything I could think of. Horses, dogs and cows, anything that came to mind. And if I got sleepy, I'd just lie down in the woods and my dog wouldn't let nothing come near me."

Pierce dates his discovery to 1968 when former Ohio State University professor Bois Gruenwald spotted his work at the Columbus YMCA show and began to push to open museum doors for Pierce.

"My wife and I went to the exhibit of folk art," Gruenwald, now a professor at the Museum Art School in Portland, Oregon, said. “Elijah was sitting in the corner with some of his carvings, and I was very surprised at them. Often you expect to find very commercial primitive work, but Pierce was genuine and totally different.”

"That was a Saturday," Gruenwald continued, "and I asked to visit him. I stopped at his shop Monday, and again was very surprised that nobody saw how good he was. I felt sorry for him in a way, and tried to help him get to the public.”

Gruenwald has since arranged six shows for Pierce, from Ohio State University to the Museum of Modern Art to the Yugoslavia show. "He was the first one who made me feel I had something," Pierce said, “I feel I owe all my publicity to him, and we're so close he calls me Dad. A lot of people forget the bridge that carried them, but I feel like he's my son."

“It's very hard to rank Pierce," Gruenwald said, "because everybody wants to categorize him. He's not part of the establishment, but there is no doubt in my mind that one day he will be recognized as one of the most important American primitive artists. He won the Naivi contest in Yugoslavia, and you can go no higher than that."

Carolyn Jones, a staff member of the Columbus Gallery of Fine Arts, has made a film on Pierce and organized his show at the Gallery. She agrees with Gruenwald's evaluation.

"Folk art is very big in Central Europe," she said, "and to win that show is very prestigious. Pierce is authentic and has no training, and the feeling that comes through his work is very similar to that of abstract art."

She also shares Gruenwald's problems in ranking Pierce's work. “What do you use as a criterion?” she asked. “There is quite a bit of interest in primitive art now, and I can tell you it is being collected. But it is such a broad thing. I would think authenticity would have to be one of the bases for your aesthetic judgment."

Others may labor to define his art, but Pierce himself remains light on the analysis and heavy on the whittling. His methods are the simple ones, born of a lifetime of unschooled carving. 

The youngest son in the Baldwin, Mississippi family of nine, Pierce was "the black sheep, a little oddball who didn't play much with the other kids," he said. “But I'd give the things I whittled to the kids in school. I just got a real joy out of whittling."

Pierce grew upon his father's farm, purchased after the emancipation. "My father wouldn't let the slave owners beat him," Pierce said,"and they kept selling him because they didn't want him with the other slaves, for fear he'd cause trouble. Pierce was the name of the last man who bought him and my father took it when he was freed. The man offered to let him work for him after that, but my father said he wouldn't feel free till he got out on his own.

Pierce himself got out on his own at an early age. After "hanging around the barber shop in Baldwin and watching, I cut white men’s hair all through World War I,” Pierce said. “And to cut a white man’s hair in Mississippi at that time, you had to be pretty good. But I wanted to leave when the war was over, so I hopped a freight train north when I was about 16 or 17. I had a nickel in my pocket, and I’d sleep in the boxcars, anywhere with a roof.”

Pierce landed in Illinois, where he would barber long enough to save money to travel. “If there was a city I wanted to see, I’d save my money and go. I traveled all over this country.” And all the while, he was carving little animals and figurines, giving them away as he went. Pierce estimates he has carved about 20,000 pieces in his lifetime.

“If people liked one of my carvings, I’d just give it to them,” he said. “I never thought I’d be where people would pay real money for anything I did. But now an old artist in New York tells me I should have my hands insured for a million dollars apiece.”

“I don’t draw my pictures first,” Pierce said. “Oh, if you could see my drawings you’d laugh at them. But I find them in magazines and newspapers and see them in my mind, and then I can see pictures in the wood. And if you sat there and told me a story, I could see it in the wood as you tell it to me.”

Pierce uses wood scraps given to him by a friend in construction and rarely goes to the lumber yard, “unless it’s for something special. So many people know I carve, they’re always bringing me pieces to work on,” he said.

Although his methods and materials remain as simple as before, Gruenwald championed his work and the public responded enthusiastically. The prices of Pierce’s carvings have risen with his star. One item Pierce sold for $300 later commanded $1,900. “The most I ever sold one man was $3,000, from my show in Illinois,” Pierce said. “He’s paying it off so much each month.” Pierce’s prices now range from $10 or $15 for a figurine, which take him a day or two to carve, to his priceless Book of Wood, a mammoth, crudely bound volume with the story of Jesus carved in bas-relief.

“The national museum people wouldn’t even put a price on this book,” Pierce said proudly, “and it’s my favorite thing in all my work. If I lost everything else, I would still feel like I had the best if I had my book.”

Pierce keeps the book in his museum at 536 E. Long St., a small room adjacent to the barber shop he built 25 years ago. He also built the large wooden frame it rests on, and only he can turn its pages.

“God so loved the world he gave his only begotten son…” Pierce begins, and recites the Biblical narration for each scene from memory. It is a continuous, heartfelt rhythm, the slow turning of the pages and the gentle modulation in Pierce’s deep voice.

“I am happy and well-blessed,” Pierce said, “and I have love for all mankind. The good Lord has seen fit to save me by inches from death seven times, and I know he has things he wants me to do.”

One of those seven escapes was in Pierce’s native Mississippi, after a black youth killed a white man. Young Pierce was mistaken for the murderer, and a police detective locked him in jail to save him from a lynch mob.

“Killing a Negro in Mississippi 50-some years ago was like killing a dog,” he said. “But the Lord fixed it so that I should escape, and he also saved me in car and train wrecks, and from guns and knives. He has work for me to do, and as long as I do that work and read my Bible, he is pleased with me.”

This story originally appeared in the June 1975 issue of Columbus Monthly.

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