Elijah Pierce

Elijah Pierce (1892-1984) was a renowned wood carver throughout the 1900s. Pierce was the youngest in his family born from a former slave on a farm in Baldwyn, Mississippi on March 5, 1892.[1] He began carving at a young age using a pocket knife. He first started carving animals because of his prior life of growing up on a farm. Pierce was honored with the National Heritage Fellowship for his art and influence in the woodcarving community in 1982.

Elijah Pierce
Sculpture of Elijah Pierce.jpg
Sculpture of Pierce in Downtown Columbus
Born(1892-03-05)March 5, 1892
DiedMay 7, 1984(1984-05-07) (aged 92)

Early lifeEdit

Elijah Pierce was the second-youngest son of a former slave, who was sold away from his mother by the age of four.[2] He began woodcarving at the age of seven, when his father gave him his first pocketknife. His uncle, Lewis Wallace, taught him how to carve more complex pieces.[3] Pierce would give away his carvings to other children at his school. As a teenager, Pierce decided he did not want to work as a farmer like his father.[4] He began to hang out at the local barbershop, and this is where he found another passion of his. Aside from being a skilled woodcarver, Pierce was also a renowned barber.[5] Many of Pierce's carving were done for his wives. In the 1920s, Pierce made an entire zoo of wood carved animals for his wife, Cornelia. Each animal represented a different story, sometimes referencing the beasts of Genesis, or animals from folktales of his youth.[1] Pierce's favorite work of his own was the Book of Wood, quite literally a large wooden book that Pierce carved into. The book portrayed the story of Jesus. The Book of Wood was the first type of carving Pierce ever made differing from his typical small sculptures. He would go on to make many more carvings similar to the Book of Wood, each with its own story and universal theme.[6]


Elijah Pierce was honored to participate in exhibitions at galleries such as the Krannert Art Museum, the Phyllis Kind Gallery of New York, the National Museum of American Art, and the Renwick Gallery. His work is in the collection of the American Folk Art Museum, and in the permanent collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.[7]

In 1973, Pierce won first prize in the International Meeting of Naive Art in Zagreb, Yugoslavia. He was a recipient of a 1982 National Heritage Fellowship awarded by the National Endowment for the Arts, which is the United States government's highest honor in the folk and traditional arts.[8] That year's fellowships were the first bestowed by the NEA.

Pierce is generally regarded and commemorated as one of the greatest and most influential woodcarvers from within the past few centuries.[9]

The Martin Luther King Jr. Performing and Cultural Arts Complex in Columbus, Ohio named the Elijah Pierce Gallery in his honor.[10] The Columbus Museum of Art has over 300 pieces of his work.[6] Much of Pierce's work and influence was not appreciated until after his death.


Pierce was born to two former slaves. His uncle, Lewis Wallace, taught him how to take his woodcarving to the next level.[11]

Pierce married his first wife, Zetta Palm, and had a son with her. Palm died during the birth of their son. In September 1923, Pierce would marry Cornelia Houeston, his second wife.[1] At the age of 61, Houeston died of cancer in 1948. In 1949, Pierce would marry his third and final wife, Estelle Green.

Pierce remained distant from his only son.[12]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c "Elijah Pierce Biography". www.cscc.edu. Retrieved November 3, 2016.
  2. ^ https://www.forbes.com/sites/chaddscott/2020/10/25/enter-the-world-of-elijah-pierce-at-barnes-foundation-in-philadelphia/?sh=28dbff8570ac
  3. ^ "Your life is a book: the artistic legacy of Elijah Pierce". American Visions. 8.
  4. ^ Wertkin, Gerard (2003). Encyclopedia of American Folk Art. Routledge. pp. 436–437.
  5. ^ "1991 Elijah Pierce - National Barber Museum". www.nationalbarbermuseum.org. Retrieved November 17, 2016.
  6. ^ a b Stamberg, Susan (October 1, 2020). "'Every Piece I Carve Is A Message': Elijah Pierce Aimed To Do God's Work In Wood". NPR News. Retrieved October 7, 2020.
  7. ^ ""Father Time", Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection". Philadelphia Museum of Art. Retrieved March 26, 2017.
  8. ^ "NEA National Heritage Fellowships 1982". www.arts.gov. National Endowment for the Arts. Archived from the original on September 29, 2020. Retrieved November 22, 2020.
  9. ^ "Artists to commemorate life of Elijah Pierce". Call & Post. March 4, 1993.
  10. ^ Bournea, Chris (September 12, 2012). "'Essential Elijah Pierce' focus of museum's new exhibit". Call & Post.
  11. ^ Lloyd, Timothy (July 1, 1995). "Elijah Pierce, woodcarver". The Journal of American Folklore. 108 (429): 357–359. doi:10.2307/541891. JSTOR 541891.
  12. ^ Litt, Steven (1993). Barber who carved world of his dreams. Cleveland Plain Dealer.

External linksEdit