Curated by: John F. Moe, Ph.D.
Department of English, The Ohio State University
The title of this exhibit, “Troubling the Waters”, illustrates one focus of Elijah Pierce’s art work. Mr. Pierce, as nearly everyone called him, believed that people had a moral responsibility to actively work toward making a better world. In the course of my four-year fieldwork with Pierce, he said to me once, “I want you to trouble the waters.” He was past ninety years old when he said that to me. He used the Biblical phrase, “troubling the waters”, to mean that he hoped the messages he conveyed in his art would have an impact after he had passed.
“Troubling the Waters” is an exhibition of the art work created by the African American folk artist Elijah Pierce (1892-1984). He lived most of his life in Columbus, Ohio, where he was a treasured member of his own local Columbus East Side community, a solid member of the church, a successful business man, and a revered neighbor whom people respected for his talents and his wisdom. The seeming grace with which he synthesized these roles is testament to his enduring membership in, and his impact on, the Columbus African American community. By the time of his death at 92, in 1984, Pierce was recognized nationally as an esteemed folk artist whose work appeared in museums across the United States. On July 3, 1982, he received the National Heritage Award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Elijah Pierce was born on a southern plantation in the northeast corner of Mississippi and migrated to Ohio, in the early 1920s, as part of the “Great Migration” of southern African Americans to the North. Throughout his life, Elijah Pierce created art in which he examined two primary themes: eternal religious salvation and the political conditions and social citizenship of African Americans during his life.
Elijah often said, “Your life is a book and every day you write a page. And, when you are all done, you can’t deny it because you wrote it yourself.” Many of his carvings illustrate Elijah Pierce’s knowledge of biblical history and his concern for religious salvation. “Humility” illustrates Jesus, with Peter kneeling, and Moses and Elijah in the background. The wood carving “Christ with Angel” illustrates the religious message of attaining salvation through belief.
For Elijah Pierce, the act of “Troubling the Waters” addresses the problems of a troubled world. Pierce’s was a storyteller, a man who developed a unique way of articulating his story through folk art he created to share with the community. Many of the carvings are devoted to the social citizenship of African American people. During the war years of World War II, Elijah Pierce created wood carvings depicting the “Double V Campaign” which focused on the theme of “Victory Overseas and Victory at Home”, the Double V. In one personal carving made for his niece, Pierce also illustrated the increased presence of young African American girls in the Girl Scout Organization. This piece is located in this exhibit, “Troubling the Waters”.
Pierce’s story is a classic American story, a story of migration and settlement in a northern urban city, a story of someone who, in American mythology, “pulled himself up by his bootstraps.” In the piece entitled “Old Times Modern Times”, Pierce illustrates the migration of southern African Americans and calls attention to the dangers of the northern urban cities.
Elijah Pierce’s wood carvings illustrate the paramount importance of the moral social responsibility inherent in the teachings of the biblical verses. Throughout his life, Elijah strove to illustrate moral guidance and social tolerance. “Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery”, “Suffer the Little Children”, “Christ and Zacchaeus”, and “Barber Shop and the Fight Against Evil” each tell parables of social conduct. In this way, Elijah Pierce reminded us of our social responsibilities.
Throughout the wood carvings made by Elijah Pierce, the quest for African American social citizenship is a dominant theme. He strove to articulate the African American position in American society. Because Pierce steadfastly shared his art within the community and reflected social change in his art, Elijah’s dual concern exhibited in his artistic message was of spiritual values and the vision of American citizenship. The piece entitled “Angel with Mother and Child in the Garden” is perhaps the best example of the dual nature of Elijah Pierce’s vision of the compatibility of eternal salvation and social citizenship. This wood carving is one of the “Church Carvings”, ones that were made for people in Elijah’s congregation. In this carving, Elijah depicts an Earthly scene of mother and child in a garden, symbolic of innocence, being guarded by their angel.