Before Worthington artist Roberta Powell turned 90 in January, she received an early birthday present.

Her two sculptures of former Columbus resident Elijah Pierce were accepted into the Columbus Museum of Art in December.

They are displayed at the entrance to a Pierce exhibit at the museum, 480 E. Broad St. in downtown Columbus. Admission to the museum is $18 for adults and $9 for students and senior citizens; children ages 3 and younger get in free. Free admission for all ages is available Sundays, according to the museum's website, columbusmuseum.org.

Powell's sculptures depict one full-figure scene of Pierce carving wood and a bust made of terracotta and bronze.

In 1980, Powell said, she visited Pierce at his famous downtown Columbus barbershop to sculpt him.

Elizabeth Hopkin, an associate registrar for the museum's exhibits, said the museum acquired the contents of Pierce's barbershop after his death in 1984, and has a large collection of his carvings.

Pierce (1892-1984) was a wood carver and folk artist with no formal training, said Carole Genshaft, curator-at-large for the museum. He was born in Mississippi as the son of a slave and moved to Columbus later in life, she said.

"From the time he was a young boy, he carved," Genshaft said.

A lot of his carvings told Bible stories and reflected patriotism, and he even did a carving on the Watergate scandal, she said.

"He also was a person who was aware of contemporaneous events," Genshaft said.

She said he owned a barbershop on Long Street near the museum, and it became a community center. She said teachers used to take their students to visit "Mr. Pierce," as he was known, and listen to him tell stories and watch him carve.

Pierce also was a preacher and used his carvings to tell stories and moral lessons, Genshaft said.

His most famous work is called the "Book of Wood," which the museum has, with 33 depictions of the life of Christ, she said.

Genshaft said Pierce's work was discovered in the late 1960s during an exhibition of folk art at the YMCA in Columbus, and it drew a lot of attention.

"By the '70s, he was really highly regarded and known," she said.

Hopkin said Powell's two sculptures of Pierce were accepted by the museum Dec. 28. She said they should be displayed until early next year.

Hopkin said the museum has a two-step process for accepting work. The curators present to an independent collections committee. The committee recommends whether or not to take artwork, she said.

The recommendation then is presented to the museum's board of trustees, she said.

Hopkin said the board tries to take ties to the community and central Ohio into consideration. She said this factor was key to the decision to accept Powell's sculptures.

"It's all really independent of the director and the curators," she said of the process.

Powell, who started sculpting at age 48 after taking a class at Thomas Worthington High School, said she has had little formal training.

She said she actually threw away her first attempt at a sculpture. Her neighbors at the time convinced her to attend another class, where she discovered her talent, she said.

"I knew I could sculpt because I looked at everyone else's and they didn't look like mine," she said.

Powell sculpted for two decades, from the late 1970s until the 1990s, she said.

She said sculpting was the first time she believed she could do something well.

Her work varies in style and subject, from realistic reproductions of the human form to more abstract sculptures.

She has two sculptures on permanent display outside the Peggy R. McConnell Arts Center of Worthington, 777 Evening St., and she said she was commissioned to construct a bust of former Gov. James A. Rhodes, who served in the 1960s and 1970s.

Powell's daughter, Jeanne St. Pierre, said the Rhodes bust is on public display at the Ohio Governor's Residence and Heritage Garden near Bexley.

However, Powell said, she made most of her work for herself.

She said she has made sculptures depicting Nelson Mandela in prison and starving families and children in Ethiopia – anything that makes a statement.

Powell said being admitted to the Columbus museum was an honor.

"It was pretty special she got admitted at this age," said St. Pierre. "She never really tried to sell work. ... It was always about making a statement," she said.

Powell has much of her work displayed at her home in Worthington, where she has lived for 60 years.

"I've enjoyed having them all of these years," she said.

St. Pierre said her family has not tried to get Powell's work into museums, outside of reaching out to a few places, such as the Columbus Museum of Art.

But as Powell gets older, she would like her work to be displayed publicly, where it could help inspire change, St. Pierre said.

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