01-19-2022  3:08 pm   •   PDX and SEA Weather
by BOTWC Staff
Published: 13 January 2022

The first internationally recognized Black American sculptor is getting her own US Postal Service stamp, Hyperallergic reports. 

Lewis' trials and inspiration

Edmonia Lewis was born in 1844 in Greenbush, NY to a free Black father and an Ojibwe Native American mother. By age five, she was orphaned and lived with her mother’s nomadic family until age 12, carrying the nickname Wildfire. In 1859, she moved to Ohio, attending Oberlin College where she became one of just 30 enrolled students of color. There, she changed her name to Mary Edmonia Lewis.

At Oberlin, she experienced vile discrimination and racism, falsely accused of poisoning the drinks of two white women classmates in 1862 and falsely accused of stealing art supplies in 1863. While Lewis was acquitted during both trials, she was beaten and endured a highly publicized trial and was not allowed to finish school at Oberlin. 

In 1863, she moved to Boston and launched her career as a professional artist. Lewis started out creating medallion portraits of notable white abolitionists including William Lloyd Garrison, Charles Sumner, and Wendell Phillips. Her work was so in demand that sales from the portrait busts of John Brown and Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, white leader of the first all-Black regiment during the Civil War, helped pay for Lewis’ first trip to Europe in 1865. 

After traveling across London, Paris, and Florence, Lewis settled in Rome where she discovered a community of thriving American sculptors. There she continued her burgeoning work, making marble sculptures inspired by her Black American and Native American heritage, shown in pieces like “Old Arrow Maker” (1866) and “Forever Free” (1867).

edmonia lewis med1“Old Arrow Maker” (1866) by Edmonia Lewis. Photo Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Lewis also drew inspiration from mythological and biblical motifs, incorporating them into works like “Poor Cupid” (1872), “Moses,” dedicated to Michelangelo (1875), and “Hagar” (1875). Lewis had already begun to gain notoriety in the U.S., featuring an exhibition of her works at the San Francisco Art Association in 1872 and again at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876.

History of Lewis’ later life was uncertain for years, eventually being unearthed by British records in 2011. Historian Marilyn Richardson discovered Lewis passed away in London in 1907 and was buried in an unmarked grave in London’s St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Cemetery. 

edmonia lewis med2Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Stamp of recogition

In 2017 town historian Bobbie Reno organized a GoFundMe to restore Lewis’ grave as well as a campaign with local authorities to honor Lewis with a US Postal stamp. Now, Reno’s dream has come true. The US Postal Service recently unveiled a new stamp honoring Lewis, featuring a portrait of the late sculptor based on a photo taken by Augustus Marshall in Boston somewhere between 1864 and 1871. The stamp is the 45th in USPS’s Black Heritage series and will be debuted on January 26th in a dedication ceremony held at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. 

edmonia lewis med3Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

“She identified first as a Native American. Later she identified more as an African American. She was in two worlds. She deserves her stamp,” Reno told reporters. 

Reno also wrote and illustrated a children’s book about Lewis life entitled Edmonia Lewis: A Sculptor of Determination and Courage, calling Lewis’ story “exciting [and] inspirational.”

USPS released a statement about Lewis’ honor on a postal stamp saying, “As the public continues to discover the beautiful subtleties of Lewis’ work, scholars will further interpret her role in American art and the ways she explored, affirmed or de-emphasized her complex cultural identity to meet or expand the artistic expectations of her day.” 

Thank you for your contributions Ms. Lewis! Because of you, we can!

This article was originally posted on BOTWC

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