CSCC Library's Art Collection: Elijah Pierce

information about works of art in CSCC's Library's permanent and temporary exhibits

Photograph of Elijah Pierce

Dick Garrett Photo of Elijah Pierce Carving

Elijah Pierce carving at 91 years old.

Photographer Dick Garrett, 9/6/83.

Used with permission:  [Ohio Citizen Journal], Scripps-Howard Newspapers/Grandview Heights Public Library/


Find a wonderful selection of photographs of Elijah Pierce and photos of many of his works by doing a Google "image" search for "Elijah Pierce"

Elijah Pierce Biography

Elijah Pierce was born the youngest son of a former slave on a Mississippi farm on March 5, 1892.  He began carving at an early age when his father gave him his first pocketknife.  By age seven, Elijah Pierce began carving little wooden farm animals.  His uncle, Lewis Wallace,  inspired and instructed him in the art of carving.   His Uncle Lewis taught him how to work with wood, what kind of wood to use, and how to enjoy carving.  As a child, Pierce loved to go out into the woods by the creek bank with his dog to fish and to whittle animals or other small figurines from wood scraps he’d find on the forest floor.  He enjoyed giving away his carvings to the kids in school and thus he began his lifelong practice of giving away his carved pieces to people who admired his work or to people he felt could benefit from it. 

In his teens, Pierce decided he didn’t want to be a farmer.  However, he had taken an interest in barbering.  Pierce began hanging out at a local barbershop in Baldwyn, Mississippi and it was there that he learned his trade.  Pierce liked barbering.  It was a trade that would allow him to have some independence and he could get a job anywhere. 

In his early twenties, Pierce married Zetta Palm.  They were very happy together.  Pierce had work as a barber and they had a little home.  At the end of a year, Zetta died shortly after the birth of their son, Willie, ca. 1915.  In the late 1910’s and early 1920’s, Pierce lived a hobolike existence hitching rides on boxcars and working as an itinerant laborer for the railroad.  He would visit his mother in Baldwyn and she encouraged him to follow his religious calling.  In 1920, Pierce received his preacher’s license from his home church of Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Baldwyn. 

Eventually, Pierce decided to join the migration to the cities in the north.  In Danville, Illinois, Pierce met Cornelia Houeston who would become his second wife.  Cornelia was from Columbus, Ohio.  When Cornelia returned to Columbus in 1923, Pierce missed her greatly and he followed her there.  They were married in September 1923. 

During his marriage with Cornelia, Pierce found work as a barber and began to carve wood seriously.  One year during the late 1920’s, Pierce carved a small elephant for Cornelia’s birthday.  She liked it so much that he promised her an entire zoo.  He began carving animals in earnest and many were sold or given away.  For Pierce, these individual animal carvings each had their own story.  They represented the beasts of Genesis or creatures from the folktales of Pierce’s youth.

By the early 1930’s, he began mounting his three-dimensional figures on cardboard or wooden backgrounds.  In 1932, Pierce completed the Book of Wood which he considered his best work.  The book was originally carved as individual scenes and tells the story of Jesus carved in bas-relief.  Cornelia and Elijah held “sacred art demonstrations” to explain the meaning of the Book of Wood.  Panels from the Book of Wood are currently on display at the Columbus Museum of Art in the Eye Spy exhibit.

Cornelia Pierce died of cancer in 1948 at the age of sixty-one.  In 1951, Pierce became self-employed with the opening his own barbershop at 483 E. Long St.  A year later, he married Estelle Greene who was then forty-six.  They complemented each other and Pierce’s work as an artist and lay minister continued to grow. 

His barbershop on Long Street was a hospitable gathering place.  Customers would come not only for haircuts, but to discuss the news of the day.  Pierce was quite engaged in the life of the local community and of the nation.  His secular carvings show his love of baseball, boxing, comics and the movies.  They also reflect his interest in national politics and his appreciation for American heroes who fought for justice and liberty.  Through his carvings Pierce told his own life story and chronicled the African-American experience.  He also carved stories with universal themes.  He seldom distinguished the race of his figures - he thought of them as everyman. 

It wasn’t until the early 1970’s that Pierce became known outside the local community.  Boris Gruenwald, a sculptor and graduate student at Ohio State University, discovered Elijah Pierce’s work in a Columbus YMCA exhibition.  Gruenwald met with Pierce told him that he was going to make sure the world knew of his art.  The two would become dear friends and Gruenwald organized several important exhibitions.  Within a few years Pierce was known both nationally and internationally in the world of folk art.  Pierce was honored to participate in exhibitions at galleries such as the Krannert Art Museum, the Phyllis Kind Gallery of New York, the National Museum of American Art, and the Renwick Gallery.  In 1973, Pierce won first prize in the International Meeting of Naive Art in Zagreb, Yugoslavia.  In 1982, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a National Heritage Fellowship as one of 15 master traditional artists. 

In a 1979 article from New York Times Magazine, Bob Bishop of the Museum of American Folk Art in New York explained, “There are 500 woodcarvers working today in the United States who are technically as proficient as Pierce, but none can equal the power of Pierce’s personal vision.”  Tom Armstrong of the Whitney Museum in Pennsylvania added, “Pierce’s strength is based on his religion and his concept of the importance of the individual.  He reduces what he wants to say to the simplest forms and compositions.  They are decorative, direct, bold and amusing.  He uses glitter and all kinds of devices to make his message clear.  It gives his work an immediacy that’s very appealing.”

Elijah Pierce died May 7, 1984.  Although much was written about the impact he made with his art, the people who knew him all said that what they will remember most is the kind, gentle, and humorous man who was a friend, a spiritual advisor, and a mentor to so many.

After his death, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Performing and Cultural Arts Complex recognized his work by naming the Elijah Pierce Gallery in his honor.  The Columbus Museum of Art now owns the vast majority of Pierce’s carvings - over 300 pieces.


The information for this brief biography on Elijah Pierce was gathered from the articles and books listed on this web site.  Through these resources, the reader can get a look at the personality and vision of Elijah Pierce, an understanding of his art, and an appreciation for the respect and love that marked his relationship with the community in Columbus. 

To fully appreciate the art of Elijah Pierce, take time to visit an exhibit of his carvings.

Information gathered and written by Kim Leggett.

Starr Review: Elijah Pierce, Sanctuary in the 1960s

Ann Starr writes the Blog "Star Review" which can be found at
The linked article below "Elijah Pierce, Sanctuary in the 1960s" was posted 1 Feb. 2012.

CATCO's Gathered Material on Elijah Pierce gathered biographical information on Elijah Pierce including a bibliography.

Pinterest Page on Elijah Pierce

On Pinterest, view this page on Elijah Pierce.

Museum Exhibits and Memorabilia on Elijah Pierce

The Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM), Renwick Gallery has four Elijah Pierce works. Zoom in to view close-up!

A release from the Museum of Modern Art on Elijah Pierce when his work was exhibited in the Member's Penthouse of MOMA, possibly in 1971 or 72.

Southern Ohio Museum's 2016 exhibit "Elijah Pierce's Woodcarvings: Salvation and Community" - January 29 through March 26, 2016.

The Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft (KMAC) exhibit "The Essential Elijah Pierce" - February 1 through March 16, 2015.


Inducted into The National Barber Museum and Hall of Fame

Elijah Pierce Works at the Keny Galleries

Sermons in Wood - [Videocassette]

Streaming Videos about Elijah Pierce

Want to hear Elijah Pierces speak about his life and his art? 

Go to the website to view the streaming video Elijah Pierce: Wood Carver.  This 18 minute film was made by Carolyn Jones Allport in 1974.  The copyright is owned by The Ohio State University.  

Go to the website to view the streaming video Sermons in Wood.  This 27 minute film by Carolyn Jones Allport was made in 1980.  The film is"An interview with Elijah Pierce in his barbershop on Long Street in Columbus.  He talks bout his work and his life and shows how his carvings express his experiences and beliefs." This film was made with the support of The Ohio Arts Council, The Greater Columbus Arts Council, and The Columbus Gallery of Fine Arts.  

View "100 Years of Art: Celebrating Columbus' Legacy - Elijah Pierce" a video posted January 26, 2012 by The Ohio Channel.

Elijah Pierce - Carved Bird

Artist: Elijah Pierce
Origin: American, 1892-1984
Title: “Untitled”
Description of work: A colorfully painted carved wood bird, with rhinestone eyes and glitter. 
Date: 1978
Donor: Gift of Mrs. Ursel White Lewis

Photos of each side are below!

Elijah Pierce - Birds

Elijah Pierce's bird - one side

Elijah Pierce's bird - one side

Elijah Pierce's Bird - Other side

Elijah Pierce's Bird - Other side

Elijah Pierce Wood Painted Crucifix Necklace

Artist:  Elijah Pierce
Origin: American, 1892-1984
Title: “Untitled”
Description of work:  Wood carving of a crucified Christ in wood, paint, and glitter which is hung on a chain as if worn as a necklace.
Date: 1980
Donor: Gift of Mrs. Ursel White Lewis

Wood carving of a crucified Christ in wood, paint and glitter which is hung on a chain as if worn as a necklace

CML page on Elijah Pierce

Jonah and the Fish by Elijah Pierce


Jonah and the fish

Artist:  Elijah Pierce
Origin: American, 1892-1984
Title: “Jonah and the Fish”
Description of work: A poster (part of a poster) of a woodcut of the biblical Jonah and the whale, 18” x 18 ½”. This bluish color is not representative of the actual colors in this wonderful woodcut.  Research to find out what Elijah Pierce's carving really looks like!
Donor: Gift of Mrs. Ursel White Lewis

Elijah Pierce: An American Journey

Elijah Pierce's America at the Barnes Museum

NBCPhiladelphia's, Channel 10 video on this exhibit, October 15, 2020.

Articles about Elijah Pierce and His Art

Index to Articles about Elijah Pierce and his art:

Search our link to The Columbus Dispatch above to locate full-text of the articles listed below:

Abercrombie, Sharon.  “Art Community Saddened by Death of Master Carver Elijah Pierce.” Columbus Citizen-Journal (8 May 1984): 8A. Print.

Beaulieu, Lovell. “Students Building Ark Are Inspired by Carver.” Columbus Dispatch (12 Feb 1993): 3C. NewsBank. Web. 23 Jan. 2012.

Berry, Steve. “Artist Carved Niche in World.” Columbus Dispatch (8 May 1984): 1A. Print.

Constable, Lesley. “Elijah Pierce’s Works Bursting with Humanity.” Columbus Dispatch (31 Jan. 1993): 8G. NewsBank. Web. 23 Jan. 2012.

        An original print copy with pictures is available at the 2nd Fl. Reference Desk in the Library.

Connell, E. Jane, and Nannette V. Maciejunes. "Elijah Pierce: Woodcarver" American Art Review 7.1 (1995): 148-149. Print.

        An original print copy with pictures is available at the 2nd Fl. Reference Desk in the Library.

Cotter, Holland. “Homilies and Home Life, in Wood.” New York Times (13 Aug. 1993): Sect. C, 5. Nexis Uni. Web. 23 Jan. 2012.

Deeds, Betty Garrett. “Elijah Pierce: Ecclesiastical Artist.” Short North Gazette (Feb. 2003): Cover Photo, 18-19. Print.

        Includes wonderful photographs by Dick Garrett of Elijah Pierce and a few of his works.

                 Find this article online at:

Dollar, Steve. “Santa Fe Folk Museum’s Scope is Astonishing.” Atlanta Journal and Constitution (21 Aug. 1994): Sec. K, 3. Nexis Uni. Web. 23 Jan. 2012.

Edwards, Larrilyn. “Larrilyn: Elijah Pierce was Known for Sharp Wit.” Columbus Citizen-Journal (11 May 1984): 14A. Print.

“Elijah Pierce, Acclaimed Woodcarver Dies: Funeral Set for Friday.” Columbus Call and Post (10 May 1984): 1A. Print.

“Elijah Pierce, Artist.” Columbus Dispatch (10 May 1984): 14A. Print.

“Elijah Pierce Carved a Niche in the Community and the World.” Columbus Dispatch (14 Jan. 1998): 6E. NewsBank. Web. 23 Jan. 2012.           

“Elijah Pierce: Woodcarver.” American Art Review (Summer 1993), pp. 96-97. Print.

Ellis, Mark. “Famous Woodcarver Buried.” Columbus Dispatch (12 May 1984): 8B. Print.

Gilson, Nancy.  “Barber Chair, Pole Given to Museum.” Columbus Dispatch (10 Jun. 2008): 4D. NewsBank. Web. 12 Jan. 2012.

Gilson, Nancy. “Carving From the Soul: Exhibit Celebrates the Spirit that Came Out of Elijah Pierce’s Woodwork.” Columbus Dispatch (24 Jan. 1993): 1G.  NewsBank. Web. 23 Jan. 2012.

Gilson, Nancy. “Elijah Pierce – A Grateful Life, an Amazing Artist.” Columbus Dispatch (14 Jan. 1990): 1H. NewsBank. Web. 12 Jan. 2012.

Gilson, Nancy. “Love for Folk Artist Behind ‘Elijah’s Angel’.” Columbus Dispatch (12 Nov. 1992): 8B. NewsBank. Web. 23 Jan. 2012.

Gilson, Nancy. “A Well-Carved Niche – Exhibit Celebrates Woodworker Pierce and Craftsmen He Influenced.” Columbus Dispatch (5 Sep. 2004): 05D. NewsBank. Web. 12 Jan. 2012.

Hall, Jacqueline. “Carvings Offer New Look at Pierce.” Columbus Dispatch (21 Jan. 1996): 8G. Print.

Hall, Jacqueline. “Pastor Carved Sermons in Wood – Seldom-seen Carvings by Artist Elijah Pierce Illustrate Bible Stories.” Columbus Dispatch 6 May 2001: 8F. NewsBank. Web. 12 Jan. 2012.

Kehres, Kevin. “Columbus Artist Elijah Pierce Dies.” Columbus Dispatch (8 May 1984): 1A. Print.

Litt, Steven. “Barber Who Carved World of His Dreams.” Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH) (18 Apr. 1993): 1H. NewsBank. Web. 23 Jan. 2012.

Maciejunes, Nannette V., and E Jane Connell.  “Secular Sermons: Elijah Pierce, Woodcarver. Timeline: A Publication of the Ohio Historical Society (May/June 1993): 2-23 (Magazine article pages are in the back of articles held at the reference desk).

Marsh, Betsa. “The Woodcarver of Long Street.” Columbus Monthly (Jun 1975): 55-58. Print.

McClaran, Michael. “Essays Take Look Inside ‘Outsider’ Art: Elijah Pierce’s Work is Seen as Guided by Southern Black Culture.” Columbus Dispatch (22 May 1994): 6D. NewsBank. Web. 23 Jan. 2012.

McMurry, Kelly. “Maintaining the Legacy of Elijah Pierce.” Columbus Monthly (Aug. 1984): 16. Print.

Moe, John F. “Your Life is a Book: The Artistic Legacy of Elijah Pierce.” American Visions (Feb./Mar. 1993): 24-27. Print. (Reproduced with permission of copyright owner.)  Academic Search Complete. Web. 23 Jan. 2012. Reproduction at Reference Desk includes pictures, the web version does not.

Moore, Gaylen. “The Vision of Elijah.” New York Times Magazine (26 Aug, 1979): sec. 6, 28-34. Print.

“Pierce.” Columbus Dispatch (9 May 1984):8F. Print.

“Religious Roots Anchor Pierce Art Exhibition.” Call and Post (4 Feb. 1993): 1C. Print.

Smith, Starita. “Museums, Collectors Preserve the Art Legacy of Elijah Pierce.” Columbus Dispatch (10 Feb. 1988): 1.  NewsBank. Web 12 Jan. 2012.

Starker, Melissa. "Well-mounted Show Offers Thorough Portrait of Revered Folk Icon." Columbus Dispatch (23 Sept. 2012). Web 26 May 2016.

Starker, Melissa. "Spirit Unites Carvings, Amish Quilts." Columbus Dispatch (29 Jan. 2012): E6. NewsBank. Web. 30 Jan. 2012.

Starr, Ann. "Elijah Pierce, Sanctuary in the 1960s." Starr Review (BLOG) (1 Feb. 2012). Web. 1 Feb. 2012.

Stevens, Steve. “Grants Benefit Documents, Artist’s Work.” Columbus Dispatch (5 Mar. 1993): 2B. NewsBank. Web. 23 Jan. 2012.

Williams, Sherri. “Pierce’s Barber Chair to be Sold at Auction.” Columbus Dispatch (21 May 2008): 01D. NewsBank. Web. 12 Jan. 2012.

Tebben, Gerald. “Ohio Mileposts May 11, 1984: Folk Artist Elijah Pierce is Buried.” Columbus Dispatch (11 May 2003): 04B. NewsBank. Web. 23 Jan. 2012.

Yates, Christopher A. “Folk Works Reflective of Black History.” Columbus Dispatch (30 Jan. 2011): E4. NewsBank. Web. 23 Jan. 2012.

Books with Information about Elijah Pierce

Note: Books are available in the library when a call number is shown below and others may be requested through OhioLINK. 
Ask for assistance at the 2nd floor reference desk or phone 614 / 287-2460.

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