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Behind the New-Found Recognition of American Sculptor Edmonia Lewis

Behind the New-Found Recognition of American Sculptor Edmonia Lewis

Thanks to a group of determined women, Edmonia Lewis, a largely unknown American treasure, is finally getting her due with her very own stamp issued by the United States Postal Service (“USPS”), 45th in the Black Heritage series.  

Lewis, who was born in the Greenbush section of Brooklyn in 1844 and died in London in 1907, became a noted sculptor, but never found recognition and belonging in her own country.  The Native American and Black woman broke tremendous barriers attending Oberlin College until being ousted on racist pretenses, studied as an artist’s apprentice in Boston, then moved to Rome to rise to fame as a sculptor, though her significance was largely relegated to the dustheap of history.  Lewis’s work can now be found in major art institutions.  According to the USPS, she “challenged social barriers and assumptions about artists in mid-19th century America,” and her work “evokes the complexity of her social identity and reflects the passion and independence of her artistic vision.”. 

The stamp was released on January 26, 2022 and marked by a  first-day ceremony at the Smithsonian American Art Museumin Washington, D.C. that included display of Cleopatra, one of her better-known sculptures, was attended by Alex Bostic, who created the artwork depicted on the stamp, as well as Isabel Vincent, a writer who recently shared the stomach-lurching roller-coaster ride of Lewis’s life in a The New York Post profile and one of the women assisting in the rebirth of Lewis’s artistic legacy and place in history.

Isabel Vincent has been a reporter since she was 18. Born and raised in Toronto, Vincent majored in English at the University of Toronto and went on to earn her BA there in 1990. 

She’s the author of seven books and has several stints as a foreign correspondent under her belt. The thread woven through her life and career—beyond a love of letters—is a desire to uncover often hidden and glossed-over truths about the unsung heroes and secret villains of our current day and yesteryear. In Edmonia Lewis, she discovered one of those heroes.

Vincent is no stranger to far-flung forensic investigations into files and documents others would rather she leave alone. 

In the 1990s she covered the drug wars of the Medellin Cartel, then moved on to Rio de Janeiro, Kosovo and Angola, where she covered the regions as a foreign correspondent and a war reporter. Since 2008, she has been investigating police corruption for the New York Post. When the story merited a longer dive, she turned her discoveries into books. Two particularly notable works are the soon-to-be-released Overture of Hope: Two Sisters’ Daring Plan That Save Opera’s Jewish Stars From the Third Reich, and Dinner with Edward: A Story of Unexpected Friendship, both of which are also being turned into films. 

We sat down with Vincent to learn more about her seemingly unquenchable thirst for the truth behind the story. 

New York Makers: Tell me more about how you got your start and what drives you.

Isabel Vincent: My first job as a reporter was when I was 18. I worked for the local paper. That experience helped define my entire career, and I always tell people that training as a reporter in a small community is essential. You will discover all of the tools you need, how to report a story, who to contact, local resources. And you can apply it to jobs all over the globe. Everyone wants to start as a foreign correspondent, but they’d be much better served if they spent a few years learning the tools of the trade at the paper in their hometown.

NYM: You’ve covered so many subjects. What draws you to such a disparate range of stories?

IV: I don’t know why, but I’ve always been drawn to telling the stories of women and underdogs. There are so many hidden, untold stories, and I try to uncover them and share the full truth, so we can all have a better understanding of our place in history.

NYM: Do any in particular stand out to you?

IV: One book that I wrote in 2005, Bodies and Souls: The Tragic Plight of Three Jewish Women Forced Into Prostitution in the Americas, is a good example of my process. When I was researching and writing it, I was living in Brazil and working as the bureau chief at The Globe and Mail. I heard about the story of women being sent here and forced into prostitution between 1867 and 1939, but no one really wanted to talk about it because it was seen as an embarrassment to the Jewish community, even now. But I dug in, and I discovered a story that was anything but shameful. These women were sent to Brazil, unable to read or write, from the poorest shtetls in Poland and Russia. They couldn’t tell their families at home what happened to them. And yet they survived. They were shunned, so they created their own synagogue. They created their own cemetery. They found a way to live their lives in spite of incredible hardship and odds.

NYM: Tell us about one of the women you’re currently invested in uncovering the truth about.

IV: I have become very invested in the story of Edmonia Lewis. She was a 19th century artist, and considered to be one of the best American sculptors during her time, but because she was a woman, and Black, and Native American, she has been completely forgotten by history. I first heard about her at a cocktail party at the National Arts Club. I was speaking to an elderly woman who was a great admirer of her work, and she told me all about how she just vanished from history. At the height of her powers, she was working in a studio in Rome, with 12 assistants. But her most famous piece, The Death of Cleopatra, was almost lost forever, spending time in a saloon, at a racetrack in Illinois where it served as a race horse’s grave marker, and only recently moved to the Smithsonian American Art Museum in D.C., where it sits in a place of honor.

Isabel Vincent with Edmonia Lewis' 'The Death of Cleopatra'

 

NYM: That’s incredible!

IV: It is an incredible story, and many of the women who are behind Edmonia Lewis’ rediscovery are just as incredible. There’s an art consultant named Marilyn Richardson who has spent decades tracking down her scattered work and finding it homes at Harvard University, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and other institutions. And I was put in touch with a Greenbush [New York] librarian and historian named Bobbie Reno, who was deeply invested in her [Lewis’] story. She {Lewis] was born in 1844 in Greenbush, but was raised by extended family after the death of her parents. She was incredibly talented and, despite long odds—being accused of poisoning white classmates at Oberlin College and almost lynched, being kicked out of school over a trumped up charge of theft, she never let the color of her skin hold her back. 

NYM: Beyond having her work placed in appropriate settings, how else is Edmonia Lewis’ story living on?

IV: Thanks to Bobbie Reno, who advocated tirelessly on her {Lewis’] behalf, and recruited local Democratic Congressman Paul Tanko to join her quest, she was honored with her own stamp on January 26. She was the first African American and Native American sculptor to earn international recognition, and this feels like a fitting tribute. After all these years, her story, her truth, her work and her life are being given the attention they deserve. 

NYM: Where can we look for the next untold story?

IV: Overture is out next. It’s a book tracing the lives of two opera fanatics in England who helped save Jewish refugees right before World War II. They got them out of Europe and into England, and settled. It’s the story of how they managed to smuggle jewels across borders, and what happened to the refugees once they got here. And I am thrilled that Donald Rosenfeld, who was president of Merchant & Ivory Productions, which produced some of the best fiction adaptations of all time, is producing a film version of that book, and my book Dinner With Edward. I am truly honored. 

If this brief snippet has you thirsty for more of Vincent’s truth, start by reading her incredible feature on Lewis in The New York Post. And the next time you need postage, ask for the Edmonia Lewis stamp. 

 

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