Not Your Typical Sculptor
Updated: Nov 1
Born in 1844, Admonia Lewis was named Wildfire.
Her mother was Chippewa (Ojibwa) and her father was Haitian. She grew up in her mother's tribe where they crafted Native art pieces for sale. She had a dream of becoming an artist, but race and gender held her back. It's a good thing Wildfire wouldn't let any of that stop her.
Orphaned at an early age, she went to live with aunts in New York. Her half brother moved west and made enough money in the Gold Rush to fund her education.
Accepted into Oberlin College in 1859, she developed her interest in the fine arts. Oberlin was one of the first colleges to accept female and black students.
Unfortunately, race would stand in her way yet again when students accused her of trying to poison two of her classmates. A white mob kidnapped her, beat her, and left her to die. Not only did she live, but she won an acquittal for these crimes. But sadly, she was never able to graduate.
She moved to Boston and continued work as a professional sculptor... despite the fact that women at the time were prohibited from taking anatomy classes.
Admonia used her unique lens on the world to develop her art. She made a living sculpting and selling medallions made of clay and plaster that showcased abolitionists, antislavery heroes, and Native American rights advocates. She also had success with a bust of Colonel Robert Shaw, a Massachusetts officer who led an all-black infantry unit in the Civil War.
She made enough money on these endeavors to fund her travels to Europe.
She traveled to London, Paris, Florence, and Rome, where she mentored under fellow female sculptors.
In Rome, she spent four years working on her most powerful piece, The Death of Cleopatra. This 3,000 pound marble statue was quite controversial for the time as it depicted Cleopatra killing herself on the throne, and having the last word on how she’ll be recorded in history.
Low on money, Admonia shipped The Death of Cleopatra to Philadelphia for the Centennial Exhibition. The sculpture won more admirers, and it was sold at the exhibition. Admonia's Cleopatra would spend the next Century in obscurity. From a saloon to a suburban racetrack that over the years became a golf course, a munitions site, and a mail center, Cleopatra succumbed to the effects of weather and time, a forgotten piece of art in the Chicago landscape. Finally, in the 1980's, she appeared at a salvage yard and historians worked to bring back her original form.
You can now view this piece at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Admonia lived a mysterious life, with many of her art pieces lost to time. She died in London in 1907. She resisted the limitations placed on her for gender and skin color, and left an indelible mark on the art world.