Edmonia Lewis was the first professional sculptor of Native American (Mississaug Ojibwe, or Chippewa) and African American descent. She was born in upstate New York in the mid 1840s, before slavery was outlawed in the United States. Much of her art is centered around her dual heritage and inspired by the events of the abolitionist movement in the 1860s. Edmonia and her elder brother Samuel were orphaned before she reached age 10 and raised by their Ojibwe relatives, who gave Edmonia the name Wildfire.
In 1859, Edmonia, with financial support from her brother, attended Oberlin College in Ohio – a college known for being the first coeducational and interracial college in the United States. While there, Edmonia took up the name Mary Edmonia Lewis and began her art studies. Sadly, she was unable to finish her education at Oberlin due to harassment and terror attacks on her person in 1863 by a vigilante mob, after she was charged with the poisoning of two of her white classmates. She was acquitted of the charges due to lack of evidence. Later, she was falsely accused of theft and was subsequently denied reentry to the college.
After her stint at Oberlin, Edmonia moved in 1863 to Boston, where she was mentored by a sculptor by the name of Edward Brackett. During this time, she was able to save enough money for a ticket to Rome by selling numerous plaster replicas of a bust she sculpted of Col. Robert Gould Shaw, leader of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, a Union regiment of free black men. Once in Rome, Edmonia studied and and incorporated elements of a neoclassical style in her sculpture work, which was also heavily influenced by her Native American and African American roots. One such work is “Forever Free,” carved in 1867 to commemorate the enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation, the executive order issued by President Abraham Lincoln to abolish slavery in the United states. “Forever Free” can be viewed at the Howard University Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
Edmonia sculpted all of her marble creations herself, unlike many sculptors of her time, who usually used workers to chisel and sculpt material under the instruction of the artist. Although this choice was partially motivated by her lack of funding, Edmonia also wished her work to remain the sole expression of her vision. At times, the heavy lifting necessary in her craft would have been very difficult work, as Edmonia was only 4 feet tall.
One of Edmonia’s most notable works was “The Death of Cleopatra,” carved in 1876. The sculpture was featured in the first official World’s Fair in Philadelphia the same year. It was one of very few artistic works created by a woman to be displayed at the event. The fact that Edmonia was a woman of color makes this achievement even more remarkable. “The Death of Cleopatra” is now featured on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
The lessons we learn from Edmonia are relevant in every time period. She was an extraordinary woman whose legacy teaches us to be who we are unashamedly, to work hard, and to never give up on our hopes and dreams.
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