Poetry Friday is hosted by Katie at The Logonauts
What a great joy to read Jeannine Atkins’ new verse novel Stone Mirrors: The Sculpture and Silence of Edmonia Lewis today, while the words “nevertheless she persisted” still ring in my ears. For Edmonia Lewis persisted, in spite of daunting racism and sexism, and she prevailed.
Born to an Ojibwe woman and a free man of color, Edmonia was raised by her aunts and felt a deep and abiding connection to her people. At the age of sixteen, she was given a scholarship to attend Oberlin College at the outbreak of the Civil War – the gift of an education which was nevertheless fraught with tension and danger; Edmonia was always conscious that the color of her skin and the “otherness” of her heritage formed an invisible, impermeable barrier:
When most people ask where she came from,
the question draws a line between them.
Most strangers want only a slip of a story…
Even so, Edmonia knew that she was meant to be an artist, for art allowed her the unique opportunity to express what she felt and connect to her roots. But not even art or the relative progressiveness of Oberlin could save her from a wrongful accusation and its harrowing aftermath. Edmonia tried to begin anew in Boston, where an apprenticeship with an artist allowed her to experiment with clay and stone, the mediums she would eventually master. An encounter with the sculptor Harriet Hosmer lead to an invitation to come to Rome and learn to sculpt marble:
Artists reveal. Artists hide.
Edmonia remembers a dream of going to Europe.
Can she swap clay the color of her hands for pale marble?
Carve entire bodies
instead of life broken at the shoulders
and live where the ground is never hard and white?
Here, persisting in the face of many odds, Edmonia Lewis perfected her craft and made a name for herself. Her fame, however, was short lived. Records indicate that she was buried in an obscure London church for a paltry fee of five pounds, by which time many of her most well known works were already removed from viewing halls of museums and destined for their dusty storage rooms and attics instead.
About Edmonia Lewis, Jeannine Atkins writes:
(She) never spoke or wrote much about her past, and some of the stories that have come down through time are vague and contradictory. Other people’s letters, diaries, and memoirs suggest places she stayed, but we can’t know much about who she saw or what was said. I read biographies and speculation, studied sculptures, researched the towns, cities, woods, artistic communities, and looked for what seemed hidden beneath recorded words, plaster, or stone.
Through exquisitely imagined scenes and perfectly crafted verses, Atkins manages to bring Edmonia Lewis to life; we experience her frustrated anguish when she is forced to leave Oberlin, her joy when she begins to forge a path forward as a self sustaining artist, and her determination to conquer the challenges of her preferred medium – marble. Stone Mirrors is a beautifully imagined gift of story in verse. I am filled with admiration for Lewis and what she was able to achieve; and I am grateful to Jeannine for uncovering her story and telling it in such a compelling way.
For Poetry Friday, I’d like to share this verse, one of my favorites, which captures the brilliance with which Jeannine imagines the artistic process: