Born around 1844 AD of an Afro-Haitian father and mostly-Ojibwa mother, not much is known about Mary Edmonia Lewis. She spent her early childhood with her mother’s people, running about in the woods of upstate New York. Edmonia was known as “Wildfire” to the tribe, and her older brother as “Sunrise” (his “Christian” name was Samuel). When they were orphaned when she was ten years old, two “aunts” took them in.
With the encouragement and support of Samuel, Wildfire settled down somewhat, enrolling in Oberlin College in Ohio in 1859. But she was a mediocre scholar, at least in everything save art, and soon left for Boston. There she befriended the likes of abolitionist William Garrison and sculptor Edward Brackett. By the middle of the Civil War, she had earned a small measure of commercial success in the city crafting medallions of Garrison, John Brown and other abolitionist leaders. And in 1864 her bust of famed Colonel Robert Shaw of the all-black 54th Massachusetts Regiment made Edmonia enough cash to depart for Rome.
In Rome Lewis joined an extensive and vibrant artistic community (all roads really do lead to Rome … even for artists). She was soon working in marble, in the popular neoclassical style, and had some success, especially among American and British tourists, especially for her depictions of African and Native American women. She also converted to Catholicism and took several commissions for altarpieces and other Christian ornaments.
Much like her childhood, Edmonia’s final years are shrouded in mystery. Until the 1890s she continued to sculpt and exhibit her work in Rome, but virtually nothing is recorded of the last decade of her life. It was widely believed that she died in Rome in 1911, but recent documents indicate Wildfire likely died in London in 1907.