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Edmonia Lewis Read by Dana King

About the Episode

Edmonia Wildfire Lewis was a talented American sculptor who emigrated to Europe to push her art to the next level! As a Black female sculptor in the 19th century she blazed a trail through the world of art and created works of enormous magnitude. Though some of her work has been lost to history, her contributions to art and sculpture will never be forgotten! 

Get to Know Dana King

Dana King is a former broadcast journalist turned sculptor who believes in the power of commemorative art. She brought us the amazing story of Edmonia Lewis, a Black, female sculptor who lived and worked in the late 1800’s in America and Europe. In this interview, Dana tells us why she is so passionate about her work and the moment she KNEW she was a sculptor. 

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Transcript

Once there was a girl who would blaze a trail through the world of art. Her name was Wildfire Edmonia Lewis.

We don’t know exactly when Wildfire was born, but we think it might be around the time of America’s sixty-eighth birthday. 

Her father was a servant from Haiti, and her mother was half Black and half Native American and worked making traditional Chippewa crafts with her two sisters. 

In the 1850’s, in America, Most Black people were enslaved and indigenous people were treated badly, like they weren’t human beings. But, Wildfire’s parents had both been born free and passed that freedom down to their two children, Wildfire and Sunshine.  

By the time Wildfire was nine years old, both of her parents had passed away. She moved in with her big brother and her two aunts – but Wildfire’s brother, Sunshine, had other plans. He changed his name to “Samuel” and moved west to dig for gold in California. 

Before he left though, he promised that if he struck it rich he’d send money back for Wildfire to go to school. 

And he did. 

And Wildfire? Wildfire struck gold too. Deep down inside herself.

I’m Dana King, and this is Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls.

In this episode: Wildfire Edmonia Lewis

In 1859, Wildfire changed her name to “Mary Edmonia Lewis.” And – although she changed her name – she still had her fiery spirit. She had been declared “wild” at her school and forced to leave. But, her brother was determined to give her the best education he could. Samuel sent her money to attend Oberlin College in Ohio where nobody knew about her wildness just yet.

At the time, Oberlin was one of those rare schools that allowed students of color and white students to study together. It was run by abolitionists – those were people who opposed slavery and believed in freedom for everyone.

Still, Edmonia wasn’t allowed to take difficult math and science classes like geometry or anatomy. Instead, girls like her were enrolled in the “Young Ladies Department” where she could only take classes like poetry, painting, literature, drawing, and French.

Edmonia tried to make friends at Oberlin. But this went terribly wrong.Two white classmates, who Edmonia thought had been her friends, claimed that she had maliciously poisoned them. The shock of this betrayal must have been nearly unbearable.

Edmonia hired a lawyer and prepared for the battle of her life, but something terrible would delay her trial…

Many of the stories from Edmonia’s life have different versions. What we do know about this story is that before her trial, she was attacked by a mob of white men who thought Edmonia was guilty even before her trial began.The following day, bells rang throughout the town alerting everyone to her disappearance. Friends, classmates, and townspeople searched high and low for Edmonia. When they found her and brought her home she could not get out of bed for days.

Her friends carried her into the courtroom each day for the six-day trial. And after much deliberation, the judge decided there wasn’t enough evidence to convict her. Victorious, her friends carried her out of the courtroom on their shoulders.

Even though she had been found innocent, other students tried to make Edmonia’s life very difficult after that. A year after the trial, another classmate accused her of stealing art supplies. 

School officials were tired of the scandals that always seemed to follow Edmonia and refused to let her register for the following term.

They probably felt that this wild girl had caused too much trouble. She had to go.

Instead of begging for forgiveness or enrolling in a new college, Edmonia left Oberlin for Boston, dropped the “Mary” in her name and tried to blend in to New England life.

The anonymity of living in a big city felt wonderful. Nobody knew about her multiple expulsions or her brushes with the law. Here, she could reinvent herself.

Though she’d been mostly sheltered from it at school, the Civil War had been raging for years by the time Edmonia made it to Boston in 1864. The fight between the South and the North over slavery was all anyone could seem to think about, write about, or talk about.

The new Edmonia wanted to join the conversation, and she soon found friends among a group of abolitionists. One connection led to another, and her artistic abilities led her to a master sculptor named Edward Brackett.

Under his careful instruction she began sculpting small portraits with plaster and clay. Edmonia’s very first works featured heroes like Abraham Lincoln and abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison.

Edmonia wanted to be recognized for her hard work but she also wanted to learn and grow as an artist. As she told the abolitionist journalist, Lydia Child, in 1864:  “Some praise me because I am a colored girl, and I don’t want that kind of praise. I had rather you point out my defects, for that will teach me something.”

Lydia interviewed and wrote about Edmonia many times. It was these articles that introduced Edmonia to a larger and larger audience. But their relationship was complicated because Lydia didn’t always believe in Edmonia’s talent. She encouraged Edmonia not to shoot too high or be too ambitious. She told her not to sculpt in marble…perhaps Edmonia should work on something easier, like wood?

To prove her wrong, Edmonia moved on from making medallions to busts, which are full head and shoulders of famous people, like Civil War heroes. 

Lydia grudgingly agreed that these were quite good and helped her sell them.

A year after the Civil War ended, Edmonia was tired of taking things slow. She wanted to sculpt big things using her own imagination. She wanted to create something new. Something big that would last for centuries.

In 1866, against Lydia’s advice, Edmonia sold a hundred copies of her busts and bought a ticket to Italy. There were many, many talented artists there who could teach her a thing or two. Edmonia was determined to absorb all of their wisdom and sculpt it into her craft.

But there was more to leaving America than just searching for artistic inspiration.  Edmonia felt like racism was holding her back. She said. “The land of liberty had no room for a colored sculptor.”

When she got to Italy, though, her American host family refused to let her in the door. They hadn’t imagined that a Black woman would show up expecting to live in their house as an equal.

Edmonia didn’t speak a word of Italian and she didn’t know a single person there, but she didn’t let that stop her. She quickly found another place to stay, and a kind stranger she met paid all of her hotel bills.

With a letter of introduction from one of Edmonia’s American contacts, a sculptor named Harriet Hossmer agreed to take Edmonia on as a student. With Harriet’s help, Edmonia set up her very own outdoor studio where tourists gathered to watch her shape plaster models and chisel gorgeous figures out of marble.

“What she undertakes to do…she will do,” wrote Lydia in one of her articles about Edmonia, “though she has to cut through the heart of a mountain with a pen knife.”

Living in Italy was expensive. Edmonia pinched pennies by not hiring workers to turn her models into sculptures and instead did all the intricate chiseling work herself. 

To pay for her studio and supplies, she shipped her sculptures overseas to be sold at art auctions. And her American contacts, like Lydia Child, would mail her an envelope of cash with her earnings.

Everything worked fine until Lydia refused to sell Edmonia’s piece Forever Free in 1867 after the Emancipation Proclamation freed American slaves.

This sculpture is stunning. It shows two victorious people freeing themselves from bondage. The woman kneels with her hands clasped as if in grateful prayer and the man’s fist is in the air. He’s wearing a broken chain like a medal of honor. The marble immortalizes their freedom and shows hope for future equality.

Lydia detested this statue and wrote a lot of ugly things about Edmonia and her work –  they lost contact after that.

Edmonia didn’t care what Lydia – or anyone else – thought and sold the statue anyway for eight-hundred dollars. Today, that would have been almost fifteen thousand dollars. 

Forever Free is now one of her best known works and lives at the Howard University Art Gallery in Washington D.C.

Even though she sometimes felt uncomfortable because there weren’t many Black people in Europe, Edmonia loved Italy. She loved the opera, the culture, and the centuries of art history everywhere she looked. She felt free to be herself, where hostile prejudice didn’t follow her like a shadow everywhere she went.

She lived in Rome for 20 years and became fluent in Italian. She didn’t go back to America often. But when she finally did, it was to unveil a magnificent masterpiece.

In 1876 Edmonia arrived in Philadelphia for the World’s Fair transporting a 3,000 pound marble sculpture. She called it: The Death of Cleopatra.

The sculpture was so realistic that people were shocked by it. Some called it “ghastly” and “absolutely repellant.” Others said it was the most impressive American piece in the show.

But after the World’s Fair Cleopatra went missing. No one knew where it had gone!

Almost a hundred years later it turned up in a small bar in Chicago. Then someone bought her to mark a grave for a horse named Cleopatra. Then she ended up in a construction yard, unprotected from the wind, rain, and snow. A local Boy Scout troop tried to “help” by painting her with white and purple paint to cover up the damage. Cleopatra was finally found and rescued from an Illinois mall by a helpful historian. 

Today, she’s finally found a home. The Death of Cleopatra lives in the Smithsonian Museum’s permanent collection.

Sometimes the details about Edmonia’s life get a little fuzzy. She rarely ever talked about her past or her childhood. She didn’t keep a diary. She didn’t write her own book. Everything that could be pieced together about her life came from newspaper clippings and crumbling old letters. Sometimes writers couldn’t agree on where she was born or even how old she was. Historians can’t even agree on where and how she passed away. 

For someone who was so large in life, so well known that people would come to Italy just to watch her work, it is astonishing that her story faded. And even more astonishing that her epic sculptures did too. 

Today, people are discovering her work all over again. Scholars are curious about her life, amazed by what she accomplished, and frustrated by the missing pieces  – and the contradictions – in her story. But mostly, everyone is in awe of the marbled history Edmonia left behind.

And, even though there are more questions than answers, we do know one thing. Wildfire Edmonia Lewis has taken her rightful place in history as one of the greatest American sculptors of all time.

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