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Bernice Sims, ‘Big Daddy’s House at Hickory Hill,’ Brewton, Alabama. Circa 1996, acrylic on canvas. Museum Purchase, 2020.101.4

Colonial Williamsburg lauds Black American artists in October show

Bernice Sims, ‘Big Daddy’s House at Hickory Hill,’ Brewton, Alabama. Circa 1996, acrylic on canvas. Museum Purchase, 2020.101.4
Bernice Sims, ‘Big Daddy’s House at Hickory Hill,’ Brewton, Alabama. Circa 1996, acrylic on canvas. Museum Purchase, 2020.101.4

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. — When “I made this…”: The Work of Black American Artists and Artisans opens on October 22 at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum, one of the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg, 28 examples of decorative art and folk art from the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s renowned collections will go on view in a groundbreaking exhibition. Never before have the art museums together exhibited objects made exclusively by Black artists and artisans from the 18th to the 20th centuries across so many genres in both decorative and folk arts. Focusing on the makers, this unique assemblage of paintings, furniture, textiles, decorative sculptures, quilts, ceramics, tools, metals and more will help illuminate their stories. The exhibit will remain on view through December 31, 2025.

Among the highlights to be seen in “I made this…” is a ceramic jar by Thomas W. Commeraw (b. circa, 1775- d.?) in New York, New York between 1797 and 1798. Commeraw was a free Black businessman who operated a stoneware pottery in lower Manhattan from 1797 to 1819. He made utilitarian vessels, some of which sold to businesses along the waterfront, many managed by other free African Americans. While networking within the Black community, he campaigned for abolition as well as rights for free Black citizens, including the right to vote.

Thomas W. Commeraw, Jar, New York, New York, 1797-1798. Salt-glazed stoneware. Gift of Marvin (Joe) and Nancy Stone, 2009.900.2
Thomas W. Commeraw, Jar, New York, New York, 1797-1798. Salt-glazed stoneware. Gift of Marvin (Joe) and Nancy Stone, 2009.900.2

Not only was Commeraw successful as a businessman, he was also arguably an even more interesting citizen with numerous and varied civic concerns. Unfortunately, it became challenging for Commeraw to operate his business in an increasingly racially-charged climate. When he was unable to find a way around the racial divide, he sought to go elsewhere. In 1820, Commeraw and his family emigrated to Sierra Leone with the American Colonization Society, a move precipitated by the loss of his home and pottery. The family returned to America in 1822.

 Sugar Tongs marked by Peter Benetzon, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania or St. Croix, Danish West Indies, 1815- 1830. Silver. Museum purchase, Hugh Trumbull Adams Fund, 2022-15

Sugar Tongs marked by Peter Benetzon, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania or St. Croix, Danish West Indies, 1815- 1830. Silver. Museum purchase, Hugh Trumbull Adams Fund, 2022-15

William Edmondson of Nashville, Tennessee was known to be a creative tinkerer who could fix anything. When he began cutting limestone as directed (he said) by God without instruction or experience, many laughed. However, in 1937, not even a decade into his carving career, Edmondson was recognized with a one-man show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and yet he remained relatively unknown for many years. His tombstones and assorted figural pieces are characterized by a minimum of representational detail as seen in the simplified facial features, hands and feet of the crucifix made of limestone that will be included in “I made this … ”

William Edmondson, Crucifix of Carved Stone, Nashville, Tennessee, probably 1932-1937. Limestone. Museum purchase, 1971.907.1
William Edmondson, Crucifix of Carved Stone, Nashville, Tennessee, probably 1932-1937. Limestone. Museum purchase, 1971.907.1

The sculpture, an early example of his work probably made between 1932 and 1937, is one of four known versions of the crucifixion theme attributed to Edmondson. It differs from the others in size (it is nearly 25in high and 17in wide, which is larger than other figures) and in the contrast between the smoothly-finished figure of Christ and the rough, chiseled cross and base. Just as other artists and artisans believed their talent and their work was inspired by God, Edmondson also incorporated spiritual expression in his pieces, such as this one.

Thomas Day, Side Chair, Milton, North Carolina, 1845-1855. Mahogany, yellow pine, tulip poplar, linen and curled horsehair. Gift of Ronald and Mary Jean Hurst in honor of Leroy Graves, 2022-71.
Thomas Day, Side Chair, Milton, North Carolina, 1845-1855. Mahogany, yellow pine, tulip poplar, linen and curled horsehair. Gift of Ronald and Mary Jean Hurst in honor of Leroy Graves, 2022-71.

These objects are but a few of the works of decorative and folk art that will be on view in “I made this …”: The Work of Black American Artists and Artisans. The exhibition was generously funded by the Americana Foundation.

Additional information about the art museums and Colonial Williamsburg, as well as tickets, are available online at colonialwilliamsburg.org or by calling 855-296-6627.