German Village's Keny Galleries is exhibiting the late Columbus woodcarver's beloved staff, once featured on Antiques Roadshow.
The long narrow staff, decorated with religious and personal iconography, served as a teaching tool for Elijah Pierce. On Sundays, the lay minister used it to enhance or emphasize his sermons. During the week, it was conversation fodder at his Long Street barbershop.
Though he carved many staffs throughout his life, Pierce considered his “Preaching Stick” his most important, says Tim Keny, co-owner of Keny Galleries in German Village. It features religious imagery (Biblical sayings, crosses), as well as elements from Pierce’s personal narrative (a barber’s brush, cup and comb). When Pierce died in 1984 following his late-in-life emergence as a renowned folk artist, he bequeathed the Preaching Stick to a granddaughter. “His granddaughter remembered him very fondly when she used to visit him, and she always made it clear to Elijah that it was her favorite carving,” Keny says.
The Preaching Stick, carved in the late 1930s to early 1940s, is featured in a new Keny Galleries exhibition, Elijah Pierce and Historic Self-Taught Art from the Ohio Valley, which opened last week and will run through Feb. 28. Because of her advancing age and health and family considerations, Pierce’s granddaughter, who lives elsewhere in the Midwest, reluctantly decided to put the 36-inch-long piece on the market and hired Keny Galleries to manage the sale, says Keny, who has been working with Pierce’s carvings for 35 years. The granddaughter also has set a provision to ensure public access to the piece in the future: She’ll only sell to a museum or a private collector who pledges to give the Preaching Stick to a museum either upon his or her death or prior to that. “It is a one-of-a-kind object,” Keny says.
Devoted PBS viewers might recognize the piece. In February 2018, Antiques Roadshow featured the Preaching Stick, which an expert appraised at $15,000-$20,000 and recommended insuring for $40,000 to $50,000. Keny saw the episode and disagreed strongly with the valuation, which he estimates was “multiples” below the actual value. “The expert was not familiar enough with Pierce’s art and life to really understand the significance of it within his oeuvre,” Keny says.
Through a mutual friend, Keny contacted the granddaughter and recommended a heftier insurance policy. A relationship grew from that initial contact, and when the granddaughter, whom Keny declined to identify, decided to sell the piece, she turned to the Columbus art dealer.
The exhibition also will feature works by other Ohio artists, including Pierce’s friend and protégé, Aminah Robinson. Keny says the Preaching Stick will then be featured in a major exhibition from June to September at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia.
Keny says he has “mixed thoughts” about whether he’d like to see the Preaching Stick stay in Columbus. While it would be a strong addition to the collection of the Columbus Museum of Art or another Central Ohio institution, Keny also says the sale presents a great opportunity for an entity in a city such as Chicago, San Francisco or Houston to acquire a significant Elijah Pierce work and introduce the artist to its supporters. “Throughout America, he’s very well known in the literature pertaining to folk art, self-taught art and African American art, but if people don’t see the works in museums, then they’re unaware of them,” Keny says.
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