Born in New York in 1844, Edmonia Lewis had no understanding of how great she would become. She contained an innocence that did not allow her to fathom that she would leave her mark in history as the first professional African American and Native American sculptor.
The gift of art may have come to Lewis from her mother, who was known to be a skilled craftswoman and weaver. Unfortunately, her mother passed away along with her father at a young age. Lewis was orphaned at the age of nine and was raised by her mother’s relatives. Though tragedy had a place in her life as a young girl, she prevailed.
Fast forward to her college years, where Lewis attended Oberlin College in Ohio. Lewis was a participant in the early years of the private fine arts school’s founding. She was one of thirty non-white students at the university. In a time where slavery existed, she was a free woman, living a life that many were hindered from experiencing.
While at Oberlin College, a tragic moment occurred for Lewis. According to biography.com, “Life at Oberlin came to a violent end when Lewis was falsely accused of poisoning two white classmates. Captured and beaten by a white mob, Lewis recovered from the attack and then escaped to Boston, Massachusetts, after the charges against her were dropped.”
Only Lewis and the two students had the knowledge of what occurred that day. The hope would be that the attack was not to deter her from reaching her full potential at Oberlin, although it seemed to do just that. Lewis would eventually leave Oberlin and her purpose to succeed with art motivated her to move to Boston.
In Boston, Lewis became friends with a self-taught American sculptor, Edward Augustus Brackett, who would later introduce Lewis to sculpting. She sculpted portraits of abolitionists such as John Brown and created a portrait of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, proclaimed to be one of Boston’s heroes and leaders of the African American 54th Regiment of the Civil War.
She not only had admiration for abolitionists, who worked to terminate the impacts of slavery; she also admired Shaw, who financially supported her for her first trip to Europe in 1865.
Since she was given a jumpstart with financial support, she took her gift and used it, having the ability to inspire people who looked like her and others who dreamed of a similar lifestyle. She used her time to travel to London, England and Paris, France and Rome, Italy. She eventually settled in Rome, learning the language to survive and flourish there, and rented a studio near the Piazza Barberini.
While in Rome, Lewis did not employ many Italian carvers to help her- she completed most of her work alone. Lewis may not have had the resources and income that allowed her to have much assistance, but her sculpting was done so immaculately that it was not a disadvantage.
Some of Lewis’ most memorable pieces should inspire dialogue among anyone. “One of her most prized works was “Forever Free” (1867), a sculpture depicting a black man and woman emerging from the bonds of slavery. Another piece, “The Arrow Maker” (1866), draws on her Native-American roots and shows a father teaching his young daughter how to make an arrow. Lewis also created busts of American presidents including Ulysses S. Grant and Abraham Lincoln.”
Lewis had a strong admiration for who she was and her ability to portray images of the knowledge she had, which shows through her artwork. Quite a few of her sculptures have been part of a collection at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
As the first professional African American and Native American sculptor, Lewis should not be seen as underrated. Her life itself tells a story of living life to its full potential regardless of the adversaries that were faced in her lifetime. She might have been turned down a few times before she was accepted, but her gift still holds its value.