Born on a farm in Mississippi to formerly enslaved parents, Pierce taught himself to carve at a young age, and would continue to hone his woodworking skills throughout his life. Later joining the Great Migration in the 1920s, he moved north to Columbus, Ohio, where he found work as a barber and preacher. In 1954, Pierce opened his own barbershop in Columbus, which contained a studio where he could make and exhibit his work. Between clients, Pierce would retreat to his studio and carve everything from biblical scenes and autobiographical stories to political scandals and pop cultural events.
Pierce had a remarkable ability to convey stories and experiences through carved wood. A devout Baptist, he often incorporated religious iconography. His most ambitious work, The Book of Wood (1932), consists of seven bas-relief carvings depicting 33 biblical scenes. Completed over a six-month period in 1932, each scene was individually carved and mounted on wood panels to form a book. As with all of his works, Pierce finished the piece with bold enamel paint, and embellished it with carefully placed glitter to make the scene shine in the light. The Book of Wood will be on view in “Elijah Pierce’s America” at the Barnes, alongside more than 100 of Pierce’s signature wood carvings.