The Essential Elijah Pierce is An Exhibition that Travels the Way Woodcarver Elijah Pierce Once Traveled, with a Bible and a Book of Wood.

First, before warbling like an overfed thrush the praises of the Muskegon Museum of Art, allow me to confess a deep connection to the regional museum three blocks from my home. The museum is my home museum, and I have attended scores of events since 2008, openings and lectures, and even have begun to produce events in connection with the museum. On the day Google has celebrated the 113th Birthday of Langston Hughes with an amazing animation of Hughes’ poem, “I Dream a World”, the commitment of the museum to non-traditional and diverse collecting is worth noting.

Visiting on the last Saturday of January 2015, I encountered a recently donated Felrath Hines painting, painted by the African-American painter soon after World War II. The family donated the work to the museum, one in a series of donations. In the same gallery, I found a Jason Quigno sculpture from his small exhibition of Fall 2013, purchase funded by a membership with acute appetite for collecting. Cheonae Kim, a Korean-American, was honored with two black and white geometric paintings near the Hines double portrait. Nearby, I admired a set of collages by Blackfeet painter Terrance Guardipee. I had yet to ascend the marble staircase, at the top of which an exhibition of Japanese toys awaited, covering Godzilla to Gamera and beyond. Domo Arigato, Mr Roboto, already.

Elijah Pierce, Presidents and Convicts

Elijah Pierce, Presidents and Convicts

“The Essential Elijah Pierce” inhabits the largest gallery in the newest wing, and cannot be extended past next weekend, closing February 8th. The traveling exhibition draws upon a collection of three hundred works of Pierce’s art collected by the Columbus Museum of Art. A man who carved for at least eight decades of a nine-decade life produced far more than three hundred works of art. One suspects that most of Pierce’s early wood carvings have been lost, destroyed or suppressed. Moreover, Pierce has more explosive works than that shown in the traveling show. For example, his work called Presidents and Convicts (above),has more bite than the two political wood reliefs included in the show, which referenced Watergate. Amiri Baraka clearly didn’t make the selection of works.

Most of the works of art included come from his middle age or his sixteen years as a celebrated artist. His genius might have been lost. In one story, an artist discovered Pierce exhibiting at a YMCA show and then spread the word to the art elites. Ironic to consider that Pierce’s barber shop  exhibited his carvings a few blocks from the Columbus Museum of Art for many years before the museum began collecting him. When Pierce passed in May 1984, CMA became a repository for his work. A member of the curatorial faculty, E. Jane Connell began to peruse the holdings of Pierce’s work and the work inspired her. By 1993, she had lead an effort to mount Elijah Pierce, Woodcarver at the museum in Columbus. The show was his first major retrospective; indeed, it was his first museum showing of his art. Connell co-authored the catalog for that exhibition.

Like Pierce, Connell migrated north, her journey bringing her to the Muskegon Museum of Art to serve as Director of Collections and Exhibitions/Senior Curator. She is still an art evangelist, a term said without irony. It is well known that she takes-in art journalism for editing gratis and her window is the last to go dark on Muskegon’s boulevard of art and culture. What she has accomplished in her tenure on the West Michigan shore might be compared to missionary work. The MMA could have easily foundered in the last decade as a misunderstood vestige of the local school system.

Elijah Pierce, Elijah Escapes the Mob

Elijah Pierce, Elijah Escapes the Mob

The exhibition is essential, intimate to a limited degree; it has a few gaps that prevent it from being comprehensive. We learn from commentary inscribed on Elijah Escapes the Mob that Pierce played baseball as a young man. Indeed, while traveling to play baseball in Mississippi, he was taken into custody as he bore a reported similarity to a murderer on the loose. Upon his release from custody, he was advised to avoid the roads where lynching mobs were looking for vigilante injustice. Instead of a safe ride home in a police cruiser, Pierce ‘outpaced the rabbits’, so to speak, as he ran home through the woods. This gave the first and perhaps only glimpse into Pierce’s life as an African American man as a young artist growing up in the south before the advent of civil rights.

The interpretive materials leave us unaware that Pierce was twice a widower, three times a groom. Indeed, a photograph depicts him and his second wife, Cornelia Houeston, and he in robes, teaching from his religious wood-carvings. He glowers and rightly so. How could he smile until his students achieved understanding? Houeston looked like a woman a man would follow out of Mississippi to Columbus, a smiling,  loving presence. And so Pierce followed when she returned north after a brief sojourn. His itinerant period of traveling as a laborer, from the passing of his first wife, Zetta Palm, to his calling as a preacher and his reunion with Houeston in Columbus has little representation in this show. I assume he carried a jack knife and had wood available while working from town to town as an itinerant laborer? When a man begins carving wooden animals to place on the mantel to delight his wife, the viewer has a right to know the name of a woman who permanently awakened his artistic impulse. I visited the show twice and missed this essential fact that should have been writ large.

Photographs gave us essence to contemplate, and several attributed Kojo Kamau, photographer based in Columbus. Kamau has achieved recognition as an American master, and history indicates that Kamau photographed Pierce between 1974 and 1984 often. Viewers are forced to infer the friendship between the two men. The show doesn’t expound upon Kamau, whose contribution in preserving Pierce’s spirit  is worthy of more than attribution typed on the photograph. Born in 1939, Kamau had to have drawn inspiration from his elder, and in 1974, Kamau set up a photography shop, becoming a brick and mortar independent businessman like Pierce. Maybe it’s unpopular to allude to Hillary Clinton, but, “It takes a village”? Show us Pierce and Kamau and their village within Columbus.

Pierce proudly served as a member of a Masonic Lodge. The exhibit shared several of the Masonic symbols he carved to give to his lodge brothers. Surely, if the archives have a photographic of Pierce in his sacred robes it has a photograph of him in his Masonic apron? We might ask to know if his lodge was integrated and where it was located. Lacking these details, this section lost focus.

Two works of art brought home the humor of the man, and once the word humor served as a synonym for essence. His carved wood relief of animals on Noah’s Ark included a bed bug, and as a traveling preacher sleeping in a segregated south, surely he encountered more than one of these pests in his bed clothing. Second, he likened the tradition of prophets leading up to Jesus as a foot race; the sprinter on the final leg evoked the legend of Jesse Owens, whose Olympic triumphs gave Adolf Hitler much to contemplate. We should also note that Owens and Pierce were migrants to the north who found good lives in Ohio, Owens in Cleveland. We learn Pierce loved his sports, and the town where Owens discovered his feet could have been known to Pierce.

The Essential Elijah Pierce is a beautiful show; however, the show leaves one lacking essential information. It also leaves one desiring to learn more about this essential American artist.

Attribution: Will Juntunen, Steamship Studios at Lake Muskegon.

The Essential Elijah Pierce can be seen at the Muskegon Museum of Art through February 8, 2014.

The Muskegon Museum of Art
 is located at 296 W. Webster Ave., Muskegon, Michigan 49440

Museum Hours:  Open Wednesday-Sunday [not Tuesdays in winter]  W,F,S:  10:00 to 4:30; Th:  10:00 AM-8:00 PM; Sunday:  12:00-4:30 PM General admission:  $8; college students with id; $5; children 17 and under free. Phone: 231.720.2570

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