Making Art Against the Odds: The Triumph of Edmonia Lewis

byKimberly Towne

In this unit, geared for middle school art students, I will be able to explore how an artist's identity shapes their work and how their cultural and historical context also shapes an artist's work. I will do this by focusing on the work of one artist. Edmonia Lewis was biracial; her father was African American and her mother was of Native American descent. Born circa 1844, she was a free woman of color during the Civil War. She was able to become America's first African American sculptor of note. She was attracted to subjects that reflected her identity, both Native American subjects and African American, and yet she worked within the popular Neoclassical style. While she gained recognition during her life, she ultimately was forgotten and only recently has begun to gain her rightful place as an important American artist. She will be a good role model for students because she overcame several substantial societal limitations. She pursued her dream of being an artist despite being Native American and African American, at a time in history that made being either was extremely challenging. Students will learn different strategies for looking in depth at artwork and will create pewter casting reflective of their own personal identity and their contemporary life in America.

(Developed for Art, grade 8; recommended for Art and Art History, Secondary and Upper Elementary grades)

Comments (2)

    Marilyn Richardson (na, Boston, MA)
    Subject taught:
    More Info About Edmonia Lewis
    Google: Edmonia Lewis, Marilyn Richardson

    for more information on Lewis\'s life, career, and sculpture
    Kirsten Pai Buick (University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM)
    Subject taught: Art History, Visual Studies
    oversimplification of my argument
    I read this with great pleasure and interest. I think that this is a wonderful way to introduce students to Lewis’s work and to inspire other curiosities and a true model for exploration. However, my work on Lewis is vastly oversimplified. Of course her identity played a role in her work. She referenced it all the time—whether it was through Longfellow or her Catholicism or her figures based on enslavement, the Bible, history, etc. But those “identifications” (a more fluid way of understanding the seeming coherence of “identity”) are based on distances—Longfellow in lieu of direct references to her childhood; enslaved people though she was never enslaved. Lewis manipulated those identities that people could only narrowly comprehend. The author states: “This book, which began as a dissertation, argues that her work is more a reflection of the time period than her personal identity. Despite this being the most recent published work, I am not going to focus on the author\'s point of view. While certainly Edmonia Lewis\' art was reflective of the context in which she was working, one cannot discount the impact her personal identity had on her subject choice and her work.” I was not arguing that her context was more important than her personal identity. My point was that her “personal identity” was never revealed by her. She used her deep understanding of context to make her dreams come true despite the limitations that the era set for her.

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