EDMONIA LEWIS Biography - Other artists & entretainers


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Mary Edmonia Lewis (born July 4, 1845 - died 1907) was the first African               
American and Native American woman to gain fame and recognition as a sculptor.         
At a time in America when slaves were just freed, she found inspiration in the         
lives of abolitionists and Civil War heroes. In a world which didn’t encourage       
women of color, through incredible determination and sense of purpose, Edmonia         
Lewis created great art and received world acclaim.                                   
The daughter of a Chippewa Indian woman and an African American man, Edmonia           
Lewis was born about 1845 near Albany, New York. Her parents died when she was         
young, and she went to live with her mother’s sisters in Niagara Falls. The         
Chippewa people named her Wildfire and taught her to make baskets and                 
embroidered moccasins. Her brother, a California gold miner, arranged for her to       
enter Oberlin College in Ohio. At the school, Lewis was accused of theft and of       
trying to poison two classmates. Although she was acquitted of both charges, she       
was not allowed to graduate.                                                           
Moving to Boston, Lewis studied with a local sculptor and began selling her work.     
She opened her own studio, where she created a number of pieces, including a           
bust of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the commander of an African American Civil         
War regiment from Massachusetts, as well as medallion portraits of the                 
abolitionists John Brown and William Lloyd Garrison. In 1865 Lewis sailed for         
Europe, settling in Rome to continue her studies. She ended up staying there           
most of her life and becoming a member of a lesbian circle of American                 
expatriates and artists (the group included Emma Stebbins (1815-1882) and             
Margaret Foley [1820-1877]. Influenced by the Greco-Roman sculpture she saw           
there, she began creating works in a neoclassical style. By the time she               
returned to the United States in 1874, her patrons included distinguished             
families in this country and abroad. She was given receptions in Philadelphia. [sic]   
dwindled and she eventually vanished from the art world. Lewis’s surviving works     
include Forever Free, which was acquired by the Howard University Gallery of Art,     
and Death of Cleopatra, in Washington’s National Museum of Art.                     
Nothing is known of Lewis' final years and her death has been calcuated to have       
occurred sometime around 1907. In 1996, the PBS television network featured           
Lewis in a "News Hour" piece hosted by Charlayne Hunter-Gault. Her story was           
also told by author Rinna Evelyn Wolfe in a 1998 biography titled Edmonia Lewis:       
Wildfire in Marble and in A History of African American Artists from 1792 to the       
Present, by Romare Bearden and Harry Henderson (Pantheon, 1993).