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
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
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.