At the Ohio History Center, new objects are constantly being changed out for preservation and to help us better tell the story of Ohio’s history. Recently, four pieces created by Elijah Pierce were added to the History Mall on the first floor of the Center.
Who was Elijah Pierce?
Elijah Pierce was born on March 5, 1892 on a farm in Mississippi, the youngest son of a former slave. His father gave Pierce his first pocket knife and by the age of 7, he was creating small wooden animals. Working with his Uncle Lewis, Pierce learned about the different types of wood and how to work with wood. Not interested in farming, Pierce pursued a career in barbering, working at a shop in Baldwyn, Mississippi to make ends meet.
After being widowed at a young age, Pierce married again in 1923 to Cornelia Houeston, following his new wife to Columbus, Ohio. Pierce continued to work as a barber in his new city. One year for Cornelia’s birthday, Pierce carved her a small elephant. She liked it so much, he promised to create an entire zoo for her, setting off his career in woodworking. His work evolved from figurines to 3-dimensional figurines on wood; in 1932, Pierce completed his best known piece the Book of Wood. The Book of Wood is a series of scenes, explaining the story of Jesus.
In 1951, Pierce opened up his own barbershop at 483 Long Street. Pierce’s shop became a community meeting place; an establishment to talk about politics, news, and even to exhibit pieces of his work. Pierce continued to created pieces, but it was not until the early 1970s that his talents were recognized outside of the community. Boris Gruenwald, a graduate student at Ohio State University, saw Pierce’s pieces at a YMCA show, immediately recognizing Pierce’s talents. Through Gruenwald’s art connections, Pierce’s work was shown in the Krannert Art Museum, the Phyllis Kind Gallery of New York, the National Museum of American Art, and the Renwick Gallery.
In November, 1972, Pierce’s carvings and sculptures were exhibited at the Columbus Gallery of Fine Arts (now the Columbus Museum of Art); Mahonri Sharp Young, then CGFA Director, said the following about Pierce’s work, “You can always go over to Elijah Pierce’s barber shop on Long Street and see for yourself that everything [he does] is absolutely real. Long Street is the 125th St. of Columbus, but there is not that much bustle. Mr. Pierce did not learn his work from us or anyone else. He used to set up his wares at country fairs, and, in a way, he still does; he is a preacher, and he likes to talk about his vivid carvings (and) their meaning for him. On one side of the highway you find love, peace, happiness, home, content and success: on the other, confusion, woe, pain and hell house. Your life is a book, and every day a page.”
Elijah Pierce died May 7, 1984, but his legacy on the Columbus Arts community continues to live on today. His work can be found in museums across the country; Pierce is still regarded as one of the finest wood artists today.
Have you seen pieces of Elijah Pierce’s around Columbus? How do you think his legacy lives on today?
Emily Lang, History Curator
Deeds, Betty. “Elijah Pierce, Ecclesiastical Artist.” Short North Gazette, February 1, 2003.
“Elijah Pierce Biography.” Elijah Pierce Biography. Accessed December 2, 2014. http://www.cscc.edu/elijahpierce/bio.htm.
“Elijah Pierce Gallery.” The King Arts Complex. Accessed December 2, 2014. http://kingartscomplex.com/elijah-pierce-gallery/.
Roberts, Norma J. Elijah Pierce, Woodcarver. Columbus, Ohio: Columbus Museum of Art ;, 1992.