In Memoriam: Walter Edmonds, artist (1938-2011)

Walter Edmond’s paintings entered my spirit the first time I stepped into the six-story high French Gothic cathedral of the Church of the Advocate, now a National Historic Landmark Building, at 18th and Diamond in Philadelphia.

I’d heard about the Advocate on the train from Washington, D.C., where I’d attended the funeral of Episcopal Bishop John Walker. The woman who told me about the church emphasized its activism, the Soup Kitchen, the Black Power conventions of the 1970s, and women’s ordination to the priesthood in 1975. The murals by artists Richard Watson and Walter Edmonds were a shock.

Richard’s work seeped into me like rain: cool and blue, jazz-like, heady, full of ancestors, but also children—his children, I later learned, cast as angels in the Garden of Eden, floating up above us, brown and blessed.  Richard Watson now works as Curator of Exhibitions at the African American Museum in Philadelphia. His work is sold through ArtJaz Gallery. We at Art Sanctuary know Richard Watson to be a generous, civic-minded man who will give riveting tours of the paintings.

Walter’s images hit me like mid-day at Philadelphia’s Odunde festival: all bright, hot sun and sound, with black ancestors shouting from the walls as we worshipped. The paintings called up my own and the Bible’s turbulence and struggle—and also the red-and-yellow fullness of joy. They expressed the African-American Christian Liberation narrative for people who feel deeply in worship, but do not necessarily “perform” that passion as part of their ritual.

Here’s how the Advocate’s website describes the creation of the paintings:

The artist and poet, Walter Edmonds, was involved in many of the activities of the church. He played with a jazz group and had painted a large mural as a backdrop for the stage on the upper floor of the Parish House. Richard Watson, the other artist and a musician, was also painting at the church. His work featured an African motif.

Knowing and admiring the quality of their work, Fr. Paul Washington enlisted these two artists to undertake the project he envisioned. Consultations were held with an architect, Eugene P. Dichter, to ensure that none of the carvings or important architectural features of the church would be hidden by the paintings…Instead of canvas, the artists painted on waterproofed plywood attached to the wooden frames. The scaffolding from which the artists worked was erected by Edmonds and his teenaged son at Edmond’s own cost.

Edmonds was assisted in building the scaffolding by a number of recovering drug addicts from the Mental Health Clinic in Mantua, West Philadelphia, where he was working at the time. Through the collection of special offerings, the Church of the Advocate paid for the materials, with some of the funds coming from the Rector’s Discretionary Fund.

Fr. Washington selected the Bible passages that would guide the artists as they designed each panel. He told them he wanted the paintings to portray God’s ongoing involvement in the world and how, down through the ages, God has worked through individuals and people to fulfill God’s purpose.

The artists took three years, from 1973 through 1976, to complete the paintings. Walter Edmonds remembers that he would come down in the evenings and stay weekends in the church, camping in the sanctuary to soak up the atmosphere. Richard Watson also stayed overnight. “I would come down at 11 o’clock and work through until early morning. There was nothing else about. The church was there, I was there. It was a totally encompassing situation.”

Avuncular, particular, and brilliant, Walter Edmonds gave Art Sanctuary his image of Frederick Douglass as our founding logo. At our 1999 Gala Debut he painted a jazz performance piece that exudes the happy energy of creation.  Donor Barbara Clothier, who bought the piece that night, generously gifted it back to Art Sanctuary this spring.  We will hang it in his memory this week at Art Sanctuary’s Dickerson building at 16th and Bainbridge Streets in Philadelphia.

Walter’s work lives vibrantly inside everyone who passes through the Advocate, as we will again to honor his memory today, June 20, 2011, at 10 a.m.

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