Meet an amazing woman in STEAM via our Lifeology Historic STEAM Heroes course. This month, meet Edmonia Lewis.
People in STEAM (science, tech, engineering, arts, and math) are blazing trails—both people from history and in the world today. We want more people to know about these people and their excellent but often under-promoted work, including children (and adults!) who might dream of careers in STEAM fields!
Each month, we feature a new person from history in our Historic STEAM Heroes Lifeology card deck. These people often faced adversity and overcame obstacles to become the STEAM heroes that they are today!
Is there someone from history that you would like to nominate? Help us curate examples of historic steam heroes from around the world—not just Western culture. You can nominate here.
Keep reading to learn about the woman featured for the month of July!
Edmonia Lewis is featured in our Historic STEAM Heroes course.
Edmonia Lewis was a professional sculptor. Lewis overcame much adversity, discrimination and financial hardship to pave the way for women and artists of color.
July 4, 1844, New York, US to September 17, 1907, London, UK
Lewis was born to an African American father and a Chippewa (Ojibwa) Native American mother. Given the name “Wildfire” at birth, Lewis grew up in her mother’s tribe fishing, swimming, and making crafts. However, both of her parents died when she was young, and she moved to upstate New York to be raised by her aunts.
Shortly later, she attended Oberlin College, which was one of the first schools to accept female and Black students. It was here that she found an interest in making art. However, her attendance there was short-lived because of false accusations that she conducted poisonings and participated in theft. Although she was cleared of charges, she was unable to complete her education to obtain a degree. She decided to move to Boston.
After moving to Boston, she was having a hard time finding an apprenticeship to help her sculpting career take off. That was until she met Edward Brackett, who served as a mentor and helped her set up her first studio. Lewis could not take anatomy classes to help make her art more realistic because they were expensive and limited to white men. However, that didn’t hold Lewis back from pushing forward to becoming a sculptor.
She began by crafting clay and plaster medallions that depicted antislavery heroes. She also sculpted biblical scenes and works representing her Native American heritage and oppression of Black people. She even saw a large financial success with a piece in 1864 of Civil War Colonel Robert Shaw. The sales from this piece were enough to allow Lewis to travel to London, Florence, and eventually, Rome. Here, she set up her own studio and began sculpting in marble, a popular medium of the time.
It took her four years to create her most famous and powerful work: The Death of Cleopatra. She spent many years traveling between Europe and the United States. At first, she returned to the United States to sell smaller works to earn enough money to finish The Death of Cleopatra. Later, she traveled back and forth showcasing many of her neoclassical sculptures.
“I don’t want you to praise me…Some praise me because I am a colored girl, and I don’t want that kind of praise. I had rather you would point out my defects, for that will teach me something.” –Edmonia Lewis
Check out our Historic STEAM Heroes Course now.