Elijah Pierce from Zach Wolf on Vimeo.
Living in and around Columbus since I was a kid, I've been to a handful of Elijah Pierce exhibits over the years. Pierce was a barber, pastor, and artist in Columbus, Ohio for more than 60 years. The first time I remember seeing his work was on a field trip during my freshman year in high school. I doubt that I knew anything about him then, but I did write my one-page essay for art class about the carvings that I saw on that trip. I don't remember much more about that, but I do remember trying to make an Elijah Pierce-inspired sculpture out of clay. It broke. Some things just aren't meant to be made out of clay.
The last time that I saw a full exhibit of Elijah Pierce's art was a little more than a year ago. The Columbus Museum of Art had a terrific exhibit of his work called "The Essential Elijah Pierce" in commemoration of the Columbus 2012 Bicentennial.* I went to the Columbus Museum of Art alone on a weekday in fall 2012, spent a few hours walking through the rooms at my own pace. I have to admit that a couple of times I kind of teared up a little. It felt to me that Pierce was present in his art, and that's not as easy to do as you might think. Designs and works of art sometime escape the hand of their creators and leave them behind. Perhaps that's what people mean when they say some art lacks soul, leaves the viewer cold, or lacks sincerity. There's no Elijah Pierce woodcarving that lacks sincerity or soul.
Pierce was a self-taught woodcarver. He began carving as a boyhood hobby, made small carvings for his wife and customers at his barber shop when he was a young man, used his art in his work as a pastor, developed his craft over decades, and, by the time he came to the last two decades of his life, had honed it into art that is still admired and acknowledged around the world.
The amount of work, its scope and beauty, created over the course of his long and remarkable life can leave one overwhelmed. That, and the undeniable power of his integrity. The sculptor Frank Gallo said of Pierce, "Beside him, I feel like a poseur, an imitator. He is motivated solely by love of what he does, and his work has both naiveté and a deep understanding of his subjects."
Artistic sincerity—sincerity, in general—is not always a comfortable trait to be confronted with, which is why art is often rejected by people who are made uneasy with sincerity from their fellow human beings. So much of our culture sustains us with the easy-yet-fleeting comfort food of sarcasm combined with the junk food nourishment of quick consumption. That irony often manifests itself in marketers' reliance upon the familiar feel of retro chic, though tweaked with our own sardonic claim to ownership of it, like being proud of our own ability to "dominate" 80s-era video games, "take" 70s-like Polaroids on Instagram, or "owning" a "new" pair of Zubaz—in 2014.
So many contemporary conversations are laden with decades-old pop culture references, and the more obscure the reference the more cache one earns. MLS soccer podcasts are replete with these pop culture preambles. Grantland basically exists because of Bill Simmons' aptitude for those kind of references. But should the economy of ironic nostalgia be criticized? It sells, after all. We talk it. We embrace as we mock. We let our unease with progress, with the future, and with the unknown produce our symbols, our standards and our "lifestyle brands." We complain, a little, at first...
…and then we buy them. We buy the hell out of them, own them for a little while, and then we let them go and buy more. In participating in the analgesic cycle of nostalgic lifestyle branding we inevitably feel an encroaching hollowness and wonder why we can't express ourselves the way we want to without a lifestyle brander raiding nostalgia, the original thought of our forebears, turning theirs into ours—but ever so slightly ironically owned, to assert our superiority. In comparison, the art of Elijah Pierce sincerely embraces us. When one is confronted by sincerity, one can either embrace it, or its parody. It's a pertinent choice for those of us who live today in this age of irony.
For those of us who have sincerely loved the sport of soccer despite its second-class, sometimes third-class status in the United States over the years, that pertinent choice is even more clearly definable. We are proceeding into what I suppose could be called MLS 3.0—where everything identifiable that was original, modest, tenuous, and (sometimes) organic in MLS 1.0 that survived the success and (sometimes) the pomposity of MLS 2.0 is about to evolve into pure property: possessed, marketed, sold and controlled by an select few. We should recognize before it is too late that the true growth of MLS has not been steered by the investors and marketers who are ever so eager to take credit. It's been organic, and driven by the creative supporters of the teams. The people who have put up with the neglect and sometimes hostility for our support of soccer, and did so when the cost was high, the reward rare, and the effort Massive. The perfect example is the slogan "Dare To Be Massive," which means nothing to anyone were it not for a handful of extremely smart, passionate, proud and funny soccer supporters who had been disregarded by the sports marketing intelligentsia and MLS, until it became too Massive to ignore (or until money could be made). Now, "Massive" is literally described as one of the Crew's marketing slogans. Now, money can be made. That is a fine thing, but let's hope not at the expense of sincerity, honesty, integrity.
This is important to keep in mind when redesigning the Columbus Crew crest. When we turn this into yet another Major League Soccer rebranding, we risk everything that is sincere and authentic. The production of the new crest will certainly go through the same process that the Sporting KC rebrand went through, and the San Jose Earthquakes rebrand went through after that. Anthony Precourt has spoken already of how much admiration he has for how Kansas City rebranded the Wizards into Sporting KC. Perhaps the second most important aspect of that rebrand—next to the $208 million stadium (which somehow manages to have some of the worst turf in the game)—was the crest.
San Jose, too, has made their new crest the second most important part of their rebrand, next to their coming new $70 million+ stadium. They're all slick. They're all shiny. They're all focus-grouped, sloganeered, market-tested nothings. It's the result of a desultory corporate process that's given us two of the most meaningless crests in soccer in Kansas City and San Jose, and a stadium naming-rights partnership with Lance Armstrong: the paragon of 21st century sports business failures in integrity.
The life and work of Elijah Pierce is a model for us going forward into an unknown future—a standard to live up to as we shape a new era to our vision. What would an Elijah Pierce-designed crest look like? That's a really good question. The very idea of having such a thing in the marketing-rich environment of today seems inconsistent with this artist. Pierce created carvings of sports figures and Columbus athletes during his life, including Ohio State football players. I think a Crew player or two would have likely stopped in for a trim or a shave at his barbershop over the years had the Crew existed in the 1950s, 60s, 70s. As an enormously important person in the history of our city, I can't help but want to include something inspired by him in a series that is offering up as diverse of a set of ways of thinking as I can in 28 days.
What I've done is seek out parts of his body of work that could be adopted into a soccer crest design, and then extrapolate from others something about soccer, or our city, or the spirit of it. Building off of what I wrote in "Columbus Means Dove", I used the dove from Pierce's work Pilgrim's Progress. I also used one of the baseball players' cleats that he carved. The idea is to create something that looks hand made, carved out of wood with a pocketknife, and like a piece of folk art that would help pass down the sincerity of local soccer club tradition to generations to come.
Today, there is an eleven-feet tall bronze statue of Elijah Pierce on the campus of Columbus State Community College. To me, it has a bit of the same austere dignity as the three workmen from the current Columbus Crew crest. Elijah Pierce lived 92 years. International acclaim and adulation for his decades of work and for him as an artist didn't come until he was nearly 80.
"For 30 or 40 years, only a few of your people knew about me," he is quoted as saying. "Now I know the joy of making other people happy. The Good Lord has blessed me. People are calling me a celebrity, but the Bible says you have to humble yourself to be exalted. I'm just the same old Elijah Pierce."
*"The Essential Elijah Pierce" is currently on exhibit at the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft in Louisville, Kentucky through March 16, 2014.