Wildfire Edmonia Lewis -- Sculptor

(Mary) Edmonia Lewis was a child of mixed parentage--her father was an African American and her mother was a Chippewa Indian. Mary, whose Indian name is Wildfire, was born on July 4, 1845 in Albany, New York. Raised within her mother's tribe, awareness of her origins fueled her desire to expose the inequalities of American society toward African Americans and Native Americans.

In 1859, with the help of her brother, Sunrise, and the patronage of abolitionists, she entered Oberlin College. Oberlin was the first American coeducational and interracial college. While a student there, she was falsely accused of poisoning two white classmates. For this, a gang of vigilantes severely beat her. She had not yet recovered when she was arraigned in court, where she was defended by John Mercer Langston. Her case was dismissed. Wildfire left Oberlin in 1862 and relocated to Boston, the center of liberal thought, carrying a letter of introduction to the abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison. Garrison introduced her to the neoclassical sculptor Edward Brackett, under whom she trained.

With little instruction, the young sculptor modeled a medallion of the Civil War martyr, John Brown. She also made a portrait bust of Civil War hero Col. Robert Gould Shaw, whom she had seen marching out of Boston at the head of the first Massachusetts battalion of black soldiers. This bust was shown at the Soldier's Relief Fair of 1864. Eventually, approximately one hundred plaster copies were sold. She used this money to buy a ticket to Rome. Upon her arrival in Rome, Lewis was warmly greeted by Charlotte Cushman, Hosmer, Stebbins, Story, and other abolitionist-minded intellectuals. Unlike her colleagues who hired Italian carvers, Wildfire did her own carving. She was afraid to study with artists for fear of accusations that others were doing her work.

Two works produced soon after her arrival in Rome were inspired by the Emancipation Proclamation. First was The Freed Woman And Her Child (1866, unlocated). The second was Forever Free (1867, Howard University, Washington, D.C.), a two-figure composition. Few American neoclassical sculptors attempted two-figure compositions even when using skilled carvers.

Some of Wildfire's other works are The Old Arrow Maker and His Daughter (1872); Young Octavian (1873); Hagar (1875); Asleep (1871); Awake (1872); Cleopatra (1786); and portraits of Senator Charles Sumner; Ulysses S. Grant; William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, and Charlotte Cushman.

Follow this link to view the sculptures of Wildfire Edmonia Lewis and follow this link to read a review of the only biography of Edmonia.