Through 80 chronological vignettes divided into five dated segments, all set to a lilting prose, Jeannine Atkins brings to life the poignant story of a half Native American, half African-American artist’s persistent journey to greatness. While Edmonia Lewis is best known as a neoclassical sculptor as well as for her affiliation with Oberlin College, details of her life remain a mystery. Regardless of the lack of data, Atkins offers a believable fictionalized biography in Stone Mirrors: The Sculpture and Silence of Edmonia Lewis.
In 1862, while attending the recently racially integrated Oberlin College, Edmonia is falsely accused of poisoning two of her classmates. Days later, she is viciously raped and beaten. Although acquitted of the poisoning charges, Edmonia is accused of stealing art supplies, and her one-year stay at the historic college is terminated and she is sent to Boston. While working as a housekeeper, Edmonia is given the opportunity to learn sculpture. During the next two years, Edmonia hones her craft and travels to Rome, the “City of Marble.” Over the course of 10 years, Edmonia creates a grand piece she titles “The Death of Cleopatra,” which she presents at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia.
Combining imagination and the power of words, Atkins’ powerful narrative aptly highlights the harsh indifference and discrimination that Edmonia faces as she forges ahead to fulfill her dreams. Stone Mirrors provides a window into the achievements of a tenacious woman of color in a white man’s world.