American Folk Art Museum Announces a Gift from KAWS of William Edmondson's Martha and Mary

  • NEW YORK, New York
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  • October 18, 2021

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William Edmondson (1874–1951), Martha and Mary, Nashville, Tennessee, between 1931–1937, limestone, 15 x 24 x 10 in, American Folk Art Museum, New York, promised gift of KAWS, P1.2020.1. Photo by Bill Jacobson Studio.

(New York, New York)—The American Folk Art Museum (AFAM) has announced the promised gift of a sculpture by American artist William Edmondson (1874, Davidson County, Tennessee—1951, Nashville, Tennessee). The sculpture has been offered to the Museum in honor of AFAM’s 60th anniversary by Brian Donnelly (a.k.a. KAWS), an artist, collector, and member of the Museum’s Board of Trustees.

The work is likely the long-time missing Martha and Mary sculpture, which was last seen publicly in the exhibition Trois siècles d’art aux États-Unis (“Three Centuries of American Art” or “American Art 1609-1938), organized by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) at the invitation of the French Government for the Musée du Jeu de Paume from May to July 1938. 84 years later, the sculpture will be displayed again in AFAM’s exhibition Multitudes, which will open on January 21, 2022.

“Since the early 1960s, the American Folk Art Museum has championed, studied, and presented the work of William Edmondson. In fact, the Museum’s first monographic exhibition was of Edmondson’s sculpture in March 1965,” said AFAM Director and CEO Jason T. Busch. “We are grateful to KAWS for this generous gift, which is yet another example of his inspiring support of the Museum.”

The initial owner of the work, Mrs. Cornelius N. Bliss, Jr. (originally Zaidee C. Cobb) of New York, purchased it in the context of the making of the exhibition Sculpture by William Edmondson in 1937 at MoMA. Her husband, Cornelius N. Bliss, Jr., an American merchant, politician, and art collector, was the brother of Lillie P. Bliss, a founder of MoMA. Their son, Anthony Addison Bliss, owned the work until his death in 1991. The sculpture came to AFAM and Mr. Donnelly from Anthony Addison Bliss’ widow, Sally Bliss.

For many years, Martha and Mary was installed outdoors on Sally Bliss’ property in St. Louis, Missouri. It was recently rediscovered by John Foster, an educator, graphic designer, and collector, who contacted Dr. Valérie Rousseau, Curatorial Chair for Exhibitions and Curator of Art Brut & Self-Taught Art at AFAM. The piece was altered, but not damaged, by natural elements and has been conserved and cleaned by conservator Linda Nieuwenhuizen.

“As an admirer of William Edmonson’s work, I’m happy this sculpture will have a home at the American Folk Art Museum, where a wider audience might also discover the importance of this incredible artist,” said KAWS.

Commented Sally Bliss: “I lived in New York for over 50 years. During that time, I knew the American Folk Art Museum well. I’m excited and glad to know that this sculpture will soon be on display at the museum. My husband and I intend to travel to New York to see it when the exhibition opens in January.”

Among Edmondson’s favorite themes are the two sisters, Martha and Mary. Harper’s Bazaar photographer Louise Dahl-Wolfe (United States, 1895-1989) became acquainted with Edmondson’s body of work around 1936-1937 when visiting Nashville and brought the artworks to the attention of MoMA. The version of Martha and Mary acquired by AFAM appears in one of Dahl-Wolfe’s contact sheets, likely photographed on Edmondson’s yard.

“The rediscovery of this excellent Edmondson is a compelling story. It will be a celebratory moment to feature Martha and Mary in the upcoming exhibition Multitudes, where it will be contextualized in Edmondson’s larger repertoire,“ said Dr. Rousseau. “This is a major addition to the Museum’s collection. We are deeply appreciative of KAWS’ extraordinary support and grateful to the fruitful collaborations that made this acquisition possible.”

Related Program

On December 9, 2021, Brian Donnelly joins Valérie Rousseau for a closer look into the artist’s vivid interest in the work of self-taught artists.  More information is available via the Museum’s website.

About William Edmondson

William Edmondson was born to formerly enslaved parents on the Compton Plantation near Nashville, Tennessee. Edmondson’s earliest commissions were for grave markers and garden sculptures. His biblical characters, angels, animals, community leaders, and heroes were each informed by the syndicated imagery in Nashville’s African American cemeteries.

Edmondson, who lost his hospital job at the onset of the Great Depression, claimed to have experienced a heavenly vision in the early 1930s, citing a disembodied voice instructing him to gather his tools and begin to work on a tombstone. As he poetically testified: “I looked up in the sky, and right there in the noon daylight, He hung a tombstone out for me to make. God give me this thing.” A devout member of the United Primitive Baptist Church, Edmondson promptly complied with this divine directive. Soon, the yard behind his house began to fill up with limestone tombstones and sculptures. He regularly referred to his works as “miracles.”

Edmondson’s work was the subject of AFAM’s 1965 exhibition, Folk Carvings by William Edmondson, and the 2000 exhibition, The Art of William Edmondson.

About the Museum’s Gifts of Art Campaign

During its anniversary, the Museum will add works to its collection as it seeks to present an inclusive, nuanced, and meaningful story of folk and self-taught art across time and place. Ranging from notable individual objects to extensive collections of artworks and archival documents, these contributions, bequests, and promised gifts will be displayed in upcoming exhibitions or will be available online.

About the American Folk Art Museum

The American Folk Art Museum engages people of all backgrounds through its collections, exhibitions, publications, and programs as the leading forum shaping the understanding and appreciation of folk and self-taught art across time and place. The Museum is celebrating its 60th anniversary in 2021.


American Folk Art Museum
2 Lincoln Square, New York, New York
New York, New York

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