Man and Snake
Edgar Alexander McKillop was a true jack-of-all-trades who produced a remarkable menagerie of outsize animals, human figures, and imaginary creatures during the late 1920s and early ’30s. Mostly made of black walnut trees donated by a neighbor, his sculptures show a carefully finished and stained surface. The figures, which reveal the artist’s talent for dramatization, are striking for their expressive quality and engaging in their humor, intensity, and directness, as seen in Man and Snake, which is carved from a log. In this piece we see a naked man clutching the head of a thick snake that encircles his body, with incised details that include hair, teeth, and toes. The hypnotic and demonic-looking man has the same yellow glass eyes as the snake. The latter is not shown to be surrounding the Tree of Knowledge, as in the Book of Genesis, but is overtaking Adam. The theme of this sculpture also recalls a religious ritual known as serpent handling, which began in the early twentieth century and continues to be performed in some Pentecostal churches associated with the Holiness movement. For its practitioners, snake handling is evidence of salvation.
Valérie Rousseau, “Man and Snake,” exhibition label for Self-Taught Genius: Treasures from the American Folk Art Museum. Stacy C. Hollander and Valérie Rousseau, curators. New York: American Folk Art Museum, 2014.