Mixed media (gouache, water colour and ink) on Felix Schoeller True Rag Etching
427 X 630 mm (original artwork is framed in one-off arched frame with bronze plaque as per image)

Prints are on Felix Schoeller True Rag Etching 310 gsm
437 x 655mm (with added white border for square format)
Edition of 15
Hand-signed, dated and numbered

Named “Wildfire” at birth, born to a Chippewa mother and a Haitian father in 1844, Edmonia Lewis grew up helping produce and sell Native-American souvenirs to tourists. Both her parents died by the time she was nine, and Wildfire, along with her half-brother Samuel “Sunrise” Lewis, were reared by maternal aunts near Niagara Falls. Sunrise traveled west during the Gold Rush, and returned enriched; rich enough to finance his sister’s education – a rarity for a woman, even more so for a Black or Indigenous person of colour at the turn of the 19th century.

She advanced through secondary school and was accepted at Oberlin College – one of the first institutions of higher learning which admitted women and people of colour. Here, she adopted the name Mary Edmonia Lewis and began to study art. In 1862 Wildfire was suspected of poisoning two of her classmates – who survived the incident. No legal action was taken against her. However, news of the controversy spread through the town of Oberlin, and one night, while walking home, Wildfire was attacked by an angry white mob – who dragged her into a field, beat her up and left her for dead. This incident sparked investigation and Wildfire had to stand trial. The charges were dropped owing to a lack of evidence.

After the scandal, Wildfire moved to Boston where she pursued a career as a sculptor – under the tutelage of Edward Augustus Bracket, a specialist of marble portrait busts. She finished her training and started creating sculptures of abolitionist heroes. Proceeds from the sales of these busts directly funded her move to Rome. Her 1865 passport states, “M. Edmonia Lewis is a Black girl sent by subscription to Italy having displayed great talents as a sculptor”. With support from the far more progressive art community in Rome, Wildfire began sculpting in marble, working in neoclassical style. Wildfire was well-known for physically carving her own work, whereas many other female sculptors at the time tasked native Italian sculptors to enlarge their wax and clay models for them, drawing criticism of male sculptors on the authenticity of their talents. With themes related to Black and Indigenous American people, Wildfire’s work sold for large sums of money, and she participated in many major exhibitions. A high point was her participation in the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, for which she created a 1.3 ton sculpture portraying Queen Cleopatra in the throes of death. The sculpture was met with mixed reviews, and ultimately didn’t sell. Eventually Wildfire’s career stagnated and she lost her fame. By 1901 she moved to London, where she died in 1907 of Bright’s disease.

For one hundred years her sculpture “The Death of Cleopatra” fell into obscurity – from storage it was sold to a racehorse owner during the second world war, who placed the piece on the grave of a well-loved horse called Cleopatra. Over time the racetrack turned into a golf course, a navy munitions site and a bulk mailing center. Boy scouts applied a fresh coat of paint to cover graffiti that had been sprawled all over it. Eventually a scholar of African-American art found the piece while working on a biography of Lewis, and the piece was ultimately donated to the Smithsonian American Art Museum in 1994 where it was restored to its former glory.