Edmonia Lewis (approx. 1844-approx. 1911) was the first African-American/Native American woman to become a prominent American sculptor.
Born to a Native-American mother, and an African-American father, Lewis also used her Indian name “Wild Fire.” She began her career at Oberlin College, and went on to study in Boston where, under the tutelage of a well-known sculptor, she met Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, a Civil War commander, and sculpted him. In 1865, she moved to Rome where her work drew considerable attention. Upon her return to the United States several years later, she received substantial commissions for her portrait busts. She was commissioned to create busts of Wadsworth Longfellow, John Brown, and Abraham Lincoln among others.
One of her most famous sculptures is Forever Free, a representation of an African-American couple in broken chains after Emancipation. The driving force in Lewis’s life was perhaps an incident at Oberlin, when she was accused of poisoning two white classmates and brutally beaten by a vigilante mob that left her for dead. According to A History of African American Artists From 1792 to the Present: “Edmonia Lewis’s struggle was unique. Like other artists, she had to establish her own aesthetic values and artistic identity–but she had to do this in the face of strong prejudices against women, African-Americans, and Native Americans. In addition, she had to struggle with her suspicions, her inability to trust others–the scar tissue from the scandalous charges brought against her at Oberlin, her brutal beating, and her humiliating ‘expulsion’ (from Oberlin) despite exoneration. Nothing like this was endured by any other artist of her day.” (p. 67)
On becoming an artist Lewis said: “I always wanted to make the form of things. My mother was famous for inventing new patterns for embroidery, and perhaps the same thing is coming out of me.”–Heidi Durrow
Mixed Experience History Month is the annual blog post series created by The New York Times best-selling author Heidi Durrow celebrating the history of the Mixed experience. Established in 2007, Mixed Experience History Month is an effort to highlight the long history of folks and events involved in the Mixed experience. Please look for archived profiles of people, places and events of the Mixed experience every weekday of May at Lightskinned-ed Girl, the blog! Thanks for reading. And check out some of the previous year’s profiles: 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014. Copyright 2015.