Welcome Edmonia Lewis to the 45th Stamp
The U.S. Postal Service has announced several new stamps to be issued in 2022. Among them is one that stands out from the rest: the 45th stamp in the Black Heritage series. It honors an artist named Edmonia Lewis, the first African American and Native American sculptor to achieve international recognition.
But who was she?
Born in Greenbush, New York, in 1844, Lewis was an artist who worked in sculpture. She was of mixed heritage; both African American and Native American (Mississauga Ojibwe), as her father was Black and her mother was Chippewa (Ojibwa) Indian.
Both of Edmonia’s parents died at an early age. She grew up in her mother’s tribe as an orphan, where her life revolved around fishing, swimming, and creating tapestries by hand. She also learned how to make and sell crafts. It wasn’t until 1859 that she joined Oberlin College in Ohio — one of the first schools to accept female and Black students — and became an artist.
But racially motivated accusations at the school forced Lewis to leave the campus before graduating. She traveled to Boston to establish her career as a professional artist. She studied under and was mentored by a local sculptor before starting her own studio, where she created portraits of famous antislavery heroes. Edmonia created busts of the abolitionists John Brown and William Lloyd Garrison, both of whom she considered “heroes.”
Edmonia opened her art studio’s doors for her first public art exhibition in 1864. She was extensively interviewed during the years of 1864 and 1871 as word traveled about her artwork. Her art was written about by famed women in Boston and New York's abolitionist circles, including Anna Quincy Waterson and Elizabeth Peabody.
She moved to Rome in 1865, where she was involved with a group of American women sculptors. She began to work in marble as a material, something that dates back centuries in Italian art history.
In an article published in The New York Times in 1878, Edmonia told a reporter why she fled to Europe: "I was practically driven to Rome in order to obtain the opportunities for art culture, and to find a social atmosphere where I was not constantly reminded of my color. The land of liberty had no room for a colored sculptor."
One of the busts she created from 1868 is called Hiawatha, which was inspired by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's 1855 poem, Song of Hiawatha. It depicts a Native man with feathers in his hair and tribal garb. Another marble piece she made, called Minnehaha, in 1868, is on view as part of the collection at the Newark Museum, in Newark, New Jersey.
While many sculptors at the time hired local workmen to carve their final pieces, Lewis carved all her own stonework herself. She felt that if she didn’t, her work would not be “original.” She carved out portraits of people, biblical scenes, and figurative works that depicted scenes from her Native American heritage, as well as the oppression of Black people.
What Lewis changed in art – and societal norms – is acceptance. She challenged society to be more accepting of her, and to not make assumptions about her heritage. She was one of the rare artists of mid-19th-century America to speak up and use her artwork to show how she was different.
Edmonia’s sculpture style is neoclassical, so it makes sense that the stamp that honors her is a creative portrait of the artist. The stamp shows a casein-on-wood portrait of Lewis, based on a photo of the artist taken in Boston between 1864 and 1871. Art director Antonio Alcalá designed the stamp with original art by Alex Bostic.
Though Lewis died in London in 1907, her impact still stands strong today, as she was a trailblazing American artist and pioneer for women artists. “The new 2022 stamps are miniature works of art, designed to be educational and appeal to collectors and pen pals around the world,” said USPS Stamp Services Director William Gicker in a statement.
“As always, the program offers a variety of subjects celebrating American culture and history. The vivid colors and unique designs of this year’s selections will add a special touch of beauty to your envelopes.”