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Hagar and Forever Free – two of Edmonia’s works

Edmonia Lewis – a black, Catholic, American sculptor – cut an unusual figure in nineteenth century Rome. Joanna Moorhead seeks to unravel the mystery of this remarkable woman. Article taken from The Tablet 4th July 2020.

Not far from The Tablet’s office in west London, in a Catholic cemetery containing the remains of distinguished figures including Cardinals Wiseman and Manning, writer Max Pemberton and entertainer Danny La Rue, is a grave that until recently was unmarked and known only as plot C350.

Today it has a shiny headstone, and the legacy of the individual whose remains lie beneath is attracting belated but much-deserved accolades from the art world. A distinguished sculptor, who rose from modest roots in New York to become a celebrated figure in Rome, what’s most remarkable of all is that this artist was also female, and black.

Her name was Edmonia Lewis, and as the headstone, erected in 2017 in St Mary’s Cemetery, Kensal Green, reveals, she was born in 1844 and died in 1907. The truth is that even if she was a contemporary artist, the story of her struggle, her indomitable spirit and her success would be extraordinary – because to this day, as the Black Lives Matter protests have made abundantly clear, the world is ranged against people like her.

“Women artists, artists of colour, face the same obstacles today that Edmonia faced,” says her biographer, Albert Henderson, on the phone from Connecticut. “But her talent was her capital. She was an incredibly skilled artist, and she was also determined, single-minded, and unstoppable.” The fact that one of her focuses as an artist was the abolition of slavery only underlines her relevance and resonance in the present moment.

Lewis’ attributes meant she found recognition in her lifetime, especially in Rome where she worked out of a studio off the Piazza Barberini She must have cut an unlikely figure in the city, at a time when it was dominated by white artists. In fact, says Henderson, it was the patronage of several white British Catholics, who encountered her in Rome, that helped launch her success. “I think they related because of their recusant history. They knew what it was like to be a second-class citizen,” he says. Their influence was presumably behind a short news report, which appeared in The Tablet of 10 March 1866, that noted: “Miss Edmonia Lewis, a lady of colour, has taken a studio in Rome, and works as a sculptress.”

Much of Lewis’ story is sadly lost in time – and much of her work, even more unfortunately, is physically lost. The current focus on Black Lives Matter, though, is helping to turn the tide, and Lewis is one of many unsung inspirational figures profiled in the Black History and Culture strand on the Google Arts & Culture platform.

She was born to a mother who was of Chippewa Indian heritage and an African American father, but both her parents died when she was a young child and she went to live with her mother’s family in their tribe. Those years were formative for her art, and perhaps she was also propelled by the Indian name by which she was now known, “Wildfire”. When she was 12, her brother, Sunrise, went to California to become a gold miner, and sent back money to pay for her education in Ohio.

Schooling was to be the making of Lewis, but it also very nearly unseated her: in a move that was almost certainly racially motivated, she was accused of trying to poison her white roommates. She was eventually acquitted, but not before she had been beaten by white vigilantes.

She moved to Boston to study sculpture, and among her first works were busts of abolitionists; it was the sale of one of these, of Robert Gould Shaw, that gave her the funds to buy a one-way ticket on a ship to Europe. She travelled around for a while before settling in Rome, as reported in The Table, having gained the support of established sculptors such as Hiram Powers. Rome was a fashionable place to be a sculptor at the time; as well as its history of sculpting in antiquity, fine white marble was available there, and the skills of Italian stone-cutters.

Being away from the US didn’t diminish Lewis’ interest in her African American and Native American heritage; if anything, it seems to have given her the space to focus on it more. One of her best-known works, now in the Howard University Gallery of Art in Washington, is Forever Free, depicting a man and woman emerging from slavery, shackles held aloft. Another piece, Old Arrow Maker, shows a Native American father instructing his young daughter.

Her relationship with Catholicism, like much in her life, is shrouded in mystery. According to Henderson, she used to say that “the black robes taught us to say our prayers”, which he believes is a reference to the Jesuit missionaries who worked in New York State when she was growing up there. She seems to have been baptised as an adult, although precisely when and where is unclear. “We’ve been to the Vatican archives to see if it happened in Rome, but there’s no record of it there”, says Henderson. More tangible evidence of her faith perhaps is evinced in her biblical works: one of her masterpieces is a statue of Hagar, the Egyptian maidservant from the Book of Genesis who became the world’s first surrogate mother when she gave birth to Abraham’s first son, Ishmael. Hagar was later cast out after Sarah gave birth to her own son, Isaac; in the sculpture, she is a symbol of the courage of an oppressed female. She also created a Moses, copied after Michelangelo, and now lost Adoration of the Magi.

Most of Lewis’ adult life was lived out in Rome, but she made regular journeys back to the US, taking examples of her sculpture with her and encouraging galleries to show them. In 1872 she was in California for an exhibition of her work at the San Francisco Art Association; four years later came important recognition when she was included in the Philadelphia Centennial exhibition. Her piece, The Death of Cleopatra, was an unsentimental portrayal of the Egyptian queen in her final moment. One reviewer called it “the most remarkable piece of sculpture in the American section” of the show. The fact that it was then lost for a century, and discovered in 1988 hidden in a Chicago storage room, stands testament to how deeply art history, a discipline dominated by white men, has ignored the contribution of women, and women of colour in particular. The Death of Cleopatra now stands in the Smithsonian in Washington.

The later years of Lewis’ life are as intriguing as her early times. Exactly when she moved to London, or why, is unknown, but by the census of 1901 she was living in Bloomsbury. She seems to have moved again, to a house on Blythe Road in Hammersmith, and appears to have been a regular parishioner at Our Lady of Victories in Kensington. If she produced any work for that church, though, it was almost certainly lost when the premises were bombed during the Second World War. Today, the only places in Britain where you can see her work are the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, and at Mount Stuart in Scotland, whose owner, the third Marquess of Bute, was one of those long-time British supporters of her work. Lewis died in the Hammersmith infirmary and, says Henderson, she asked for her death notice to be published in The Tablet. “A spinster and sculptor” was how she wanted to be remembered; more than 100 years on, that ambition seems finally to be being realised.

The Indomitable Spirit of Edmonia Lewis by Harry Henderson and Albert Henderson is available for download on Kindle. For further information, see www.edmonialewis.com

Comfort and Joy

Cate Ryan, Clonmel, Tipperary. wrote this letter to The Irish Times 27.12.19

A chara. – By night he sleeps in doorways and by day he comes here to the train station to play the piano. With his hood up, he sits hunched into himself, but his fingers spill like light across the keys.

And the rush of passersby is startled to a stand still, because he plays the familiar tunes as though his heart beats in his hands.

He’s not here today and the piano is silent. I sit down to it and my fingers stumble through the low and quiet notes of that old carol: “God rest ye merry gentlemen”. But when his hands reach down from behind and rest either side of mine, for a few brief moments we’re joined in the playing of it.

And there it is again, at last – that breathless surge of fresh remembrance that what is felt as holy are simply those acts shared between unguarded hearts.

I leave him then, join the crowd on our journeys home, to music played by a man whithout one. Yet he plays the piano with as fierce a wish as children’s eyes search the sky on Christmas Eve.

He plays as some will clasp their hands in prayer, “Good tidings of comfort and joy”. – Is mise

The editor writes: Reader I am aware this is a Christmas story but we are in a difficult time and in need of Comfort and Joy. May this talented man be blessed and also Cate Ryan for taking the trouble to write in.

What does sin mean to you?

by Fr Michael Commane – taken from The Irish Times Saturday 20th June 2020

Before writing this piece, I asked a number of people what sin meant for them. A journalist colleague said he found some forms of unkindness sinful. Two of my fellow priests said that sin meant missing the target.

What is sin? The concept of sin only makes sense in the context of a relationship with a personal God. Sin is the damaging of the integity of our friendship with God. And that also includes our relationship with other people and the world about us.

St Paul (Romans 5:12-15) tells us that sin existed in the world long before the law was laid down. The prophet Jeremiah (20:10-13) writes that the Lord has delivered the souls of the needy from the hands of evil men. In Matthew (10:26-35) Jesus assures us. “If anyone declares himself for me in the presence of men, I will declare myself for him in the presence of my father in heaven”.

Sinner

My sense is Christ is more interested in the sinner than in the sin. Might it be possible that by placing an over-emphasis on law, rules and regulations, we are placing too much emphasis on the sin and moving away from mercy and empathy for the sinner?

I’m reminded of an incident that happened my late mother: when baking a cake on a Good Friday, she absentmindedly tasted some ingredients. She later phoned the local priest to know if she could receive Holy Communion later that day. He said she couldn’t and that it would be sinful if she did. That’s a long time ago. The unfeeling response to a woman trying to live her faith still troubles me. But what does it say about the priest and the theology he had been taught?

I find it more helpful to see sin as falling short of living up to the Christian ideal. Sin is intrinsically linked to putting ourselves first and above everyone, including God.

Most of all it’s important to stress that God in his mercy is always ready to offer forgiveness to the sinner. And that’s far stronger than the most persuasive seductions that come our way.

Remember, Jesus has died on a cross for you and me and the Holy Spirit is among us.

Everything to do with God is surrounded by mystery. That does not prevent us from trying to say something about God, and how we damage our relationship with God.

Breaking Bad

I remember in theology class a lecturer saying that sin was the breaking of a relationship with God. It has stayed with me. Just as our faith is essentially a relationship with God and one another, so too is sin the damaging of that relationship.

‘Breaking Bad’ is said to be one of the best TV drama series. It’s the story of Walter White, a chemistry teacher, who is short of cash. He gets into the drug trade. Over the 62-episode series he moves from being a good person to being evil. It is inevitable the choices he makes will lead to his doom. The series charts how he destroys his relationships with those he loves.I am struck by the fact that it is a tale about falling from grace. White loses out on living a good or worthwhile life.

He totally relies on his own intelligence and cunning. He causes untold damage to himself and those close to him.

Isn’t that exactly what sin is, a falling away from the grace that God offers us, the damaging of our relationship with God and others?

When St Dominic founded the Dominican Order in the 13th century he insisted that the constitutions of the Order were not binding under sin.

An over-emphasis on sin is not at all the message of the Gospel.

Jesuit priest, Alfred Delp, who was murdered by the German authorities in January 1945, wrote in prison: “We believe more in our own unworthiness than in the creative impulse of God.

As an appendix to this article I found the following in The Bible Alive on 2nd July 2020 which might be of help to someone other than me:

Forgiveness is the human being’s deepest need. Fr Ronald Rolheiser spoke to many hearts when he wrote:

‘If the Catholicism that I was raised in had a fault, and it did, it was precisely that it did not allow for mistakes. It demanded that you get it right the first time….

If you made a mistake, you lived with it and, like the rich young man, were doomed to be sad, at least for the rest of your life…I have seen that mark on all kinds of people: divorcees, ex-priests, ex-religious, people who have had children outside of marriage, parents who have made serious mistakes with their children, and countless others who have made serious mistakes. There is too little around to help them. We need a theology of brokenness..We need a theology that tells us that mistakes are not forever, that they are not even for a life-time, that time and grace wash clean, that nothing is irrevocable. Finally, we need a theology which teaches us that God loves us as sinners and that the task of Christianity is not to teach us how to live, but how to live again, and again, and again.’

Editor’s comment: there is hope for us all.