by Kevin Trimell Jones
(Mary) Edmonia “Wildfire” Lewis (1843-1911) stands out for her courage and willingness to live a life defined by her own sense of agency and independence. Despite her mixed racial/ethnic heritage, she is considered one of a few African-American artists to develop a fan base that crossed racial, ethnic and national boundaries — and the first to develop a reputation as an acclaimed sculptor, which would later give her access to circles that generally excluded people of color and women. While many have speculated about her sexuality — given her close associations with women and her androgynous style of dress — Lewis was a transformational figure who used her art to capture the historical legacies of women, African Americans and other figures central to black culture and the American Civil War.
Historians believe that Lewis was born near Albany, N.Y. Her mother was a Chippewa Indian; her father was a freeman of African descent. After her parents’ death, Lewis lived with two of her mother’s sisters in Niagara Falls and in other parts of New York. There, Lewis took full advantage of her surroundings, spending her time swimming, fishing and learning and participating in Native American customs and traditions. Lewis would later attend Oberlin College in Ohio with the help of her brother, a gold miner. By this time, Oberlin College had developed a reputation for promoting diversity and inclusion: It was the nation’s first coeducational and interracial college, and had enrolled African Americans since in 1835.
Lewis is believed to have been a part of a few notable, possibly romantic and sexual incidents with other females. An early “peculiar episode” is described in “African American Art and Artist” as taking place at Oberlin College on the morning of Jan. 27, 1862. According to the story, Oberlin College was in recess. Two female friends of Lewis were preparing for an extended sleigh ride with two of their male friends. Before the departure, Lewis invited her female classmates to her room for a “drink of hot spiced wine, which medical testimony later indicated contained an aphrodisiac called cantharides.” After the classmates became ill, suffering from stomach and other physical ailments, Lewis was accused of “poisoning” her classmates. Her relationships with Oberlin College administrators preserved her from immediate arrest. During the night, however, Lewis was kidnapped, dragged to a field and brutally beaten. There was no official investigation into the beating, and this nearly shattered the sense of racial harmony in the integrated town. Lewis was spared from criminal charges due to insufficient evidence: “… Most people believed that, if Edmonia had in fact served the drug to the young women, her intent was more likely to promote sexual stimulation than to poison.”
After this incident, Lewis stayed at Oberlin College, finishing her coursework in 1864.
When she left Ohio, Lewis found herself in Boston. Margaret Farrand Thorp, in The New England Quarterly (1959), describes Lewis’ early beginnings in Boston thusly:
“The story goes that … her eye was caught by Richard Greenough’s stature of Benjamin Franklin. A statue of the size of life was something that she had never seen or heard of. That a great man of the past could be made to live for her seemed very wonderful. Could she perhaps learn to perform such an act of creation?”
With letters of recommendation from Oberlin College addressed to William Lloyd Garrison and other abolitionists, she set out to learn the art of sculpting.
While living in Boston, Lewis created notable pieces that today tell the struggles of African Americans and women in varying quests for freedom and independence. For example, Lewis designed a medallion of John Brown, an early abolitionist who advocated armed insurrections against other whites to abolish slavery. In 1859, Brown and his interracial coalition of 21 men raided the arsenal at Harpers Ferry, W.V. Lewis was commissioned by Dr. Harriot K. Hunt, Boston’s first woman physician, to create a statue of Hygeia, the Greek goddess of health. This statue currently marks Hunt’s final resting place in Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Mass. Lewis also created a bust of Col. Robert Gould Shaw, who led the all-black Civil War unit known as the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment. This group of fighters was part of the first group of black men recruited in the North, and made incredible sacrifices for America’s independence. The regiment experienced 272 casualties during an assault on Ft. Wagner in South Carolina, including the life of Shaw. Lewis ultimately sold 100 copies of the Shaw bust during a Soldier’s Relief Fair held in Boston. The fundraiser helped finance Lewis’ trip and eventual relocation from America to Rome. Lewis told The New York Times (Dec. 29, 1878) that she “was practically driven to Rome in order to obtain the opportunities for art-culture, and to find a social atmosphere where [she] was not constantly reminded of my color.”
While living in Europe, Lewis further developed her international acclaim by learning Greco-Roman sculpting styles from renowned sculptors. This would influence her neoclassical-inspired pieces. In Rome, she joined the circle of American expatriates and artists, including American stage actress and sculptor Charlotte Cushman and sculptor Harriet Hosmer. Novelist Henry James referred to this group derogatorily as the “White Marmorean Flock,” as most in the circle were known for having same-sex relationships, including Lewis. These women were highly influential on Lewis’ life. According to “Improper Bostonians: Lesbian and Gay History from the Puritans to Playland,” “Lewis emulated both the outward attributes of their unconventional, often masculine attire, as well as their aesthetic independence.”
While abroad, Lewis received praise from many art critics. There, she began creating sculptures of her heroines, many of whom were from the Bible. Lewis returned to the United States in 1874 with a great amount of notoriety, especially for a woman of mixed heritage and of African descent. Receptions were held in Boston and Philadelphia to welcome her and to showcase her work. In 1876, she was one of a few women sculptors invited to participate and exhibit at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, which was the first official World Fair to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Her work “Death of Cleopatra” was described as original, and unlike any other depictions of Cleopatra from other literary sculptures. Instead, her work captured “death” and “beauty.” People often referred to it as “absolutely repellent” despite being able to see the talent required to create the powerful piece. In 1877, she was commissioned by former U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant to develop a bust of his likeness.
The historical record of the life and legacy of Lewis is still being discovered and written. While the date and location of her death are still debated, her legacy is unquestionable.
Kevin Trimell Jones is founder and lead curator for the Black LGBT Archivists Society of Philadelphia. He holds a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Michigan, and graduate degrees from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and the University of Pennsylvania.