Keny Galleries: Carvings
show Elijah Pierce’s political side
Artist known for religious works also dealt with social issues
By Elizabeth Trapp
experience the story of humanity, one need only look at Elijah Pierce’s
A legend in Columbus, Pierce (1892-1984) was the son of a former slave. He
took up woodcarving at an early age and, as an active participant in the
civil-rights movement, later used the medium to spread messages of peace.
Not formally trained as an artist, Pierce masterfully organized his
compositions to unfold in a clear narrative.
Pierce is well-known for his religious-themed carvings, but the 22 works in
“Parables and Politics,” at the Keny Galleries, present another viewpoint on
his work — one that is politically charged.
A small woodcarving from 1972, The Prisoner and the Warden,
sets up a clear opposition of freedom and oppression. The figure of the
prisoner, large in scale, is pictured dancing and holding a banjo in the
center of the composition. Above the prisoner, the disembodied head of the
warden looks on.
Works such as Tis a Mean Dog That Bites the
Hand That Feeds It
and The Good Samaritan convey
moral messages. The former pictures a man reaching out a bloodied hand toward
a beastlike dog. The scene clearly illustrates the adage “Don’t bite the hand
The Good Samaritan is
at once the well-known biblical story and a universal calling to help those in
your community equally. Made in 1965 while the civil-rights movement was in
full swing, the image couldn’t be more relevant to Pierce’s biography.
The star of the exhibit, the enormous and imaginative carving Joy,
speaks volumes about the artist’s ability to not only reflect his time but
also to embed lightheartedness and humor in his work. Joy,
a diptych that is part sculpture, part time capsule, is reminiscent of the
grand altarpieces of the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
But Pierce’s altar isn’t as “heavy” in subject matter as those of the 1400s.
Rather, his is filled with tenderly carved animal figures, blooming plants and
bright colors, and it bursts with energy.
What makes “Politics and Parables” different is the decisive move to display
Pierce’s moral and religious carvings side by side with his overtly political
works such as The White House, Presidents
and Convicts and Nixon
Being Driven From the White House,
which collectively portray momentous events in U.S. history, with references
to the Watergate scandal, the Vietnam War, the 1963 March on Washington and
the role of the African-American soldier in the Civil War.
Pierce’s raw, human and energized imagery forms a narrative of our recent
history and reaches viewers in a way few images can.