Profile: Elijah Pierce (1892-1984)

Elijah Pierce was a renowned wood carver throughout the 1900s. Pierce was the youngest in his family born from a former slave on a farm in Baldwyn, Mississippi on March 5, 1892. He began carving at a young age using a pocket knife. He first started carving animals because of his prior life of growing up on a farm. Pierce was honored with the National Heritage Fellowship for his art and influence in the woodcarving community in 1982.

Early life

Elijah Pierce was the second-youngest son of a former slave, who was sold away from his mother by the age of four. He began woodcarving at the age of seven, when his father gave him his first pocketknife. His uncle, Lewis Wallace, taught him how to carve more complex pieces.  Pierce would give away his carvings to other children at his school. As a teenager, Pierce decided he did not want to work as a farmer like his father. He began to hang out at the local barbershop, and this is where he found another passion of his. Aside from being a skilled woodcarver, Pierce was also a renowned barber. Many of Pierce’s carving were done for his wives. In the 1920s, Pierce made an entire zoo of wood carved animals for his wife, Cornelia. Each animal represented a different story, sometimes referencing the beasts of Genesis, or animals from folktales of his youth. Pierce’s favorite work of his own was the Book of Wood, quite literally a large wooden book that Pierce carved into. The book portrayed the story of Jesus. The Book of Wood was the first type of carving Pierce ever made differing from his typical small sculptures. He would go on to make many more carvings similar to the Book of Wood, each with its own story and universal theme.

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