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In 1975, Eileen Tenney moved to the Gallatin Valley with her husband and began a journey that would last the next 40 years.

An artist and teacher from Wessington Springs, South Dakota, a town of fewer than 1,000 people roughly 130 miles west of Sioux Falls, Tenney found a job in Bozeman working at Anderson School. The couple hired a real estate agent to help them find a home. Their budget? $40,000.

Following a brief search, the agent came back with a list of homes, among them a two-story Queen Anne-style nestled on South Bozeman Avenue with ornate woodwork lining its brick exterior.

The agent didn’t want to show Tenney the house. It was in disrepair, she said, and the neighborhood didn’t have as much potential as some other parts of town. But it was a stone’s throw from Longfellow School and walking distance to Peets Hill, so Tenney insisted.

As soon as she stepped into the home, with its wood banister crawling up a tight staircase and the pleasant, musty smell of time in the air, she felt it.

“The minute I walked in here I knew I wanted the house,” she said. “We had to be the ones to buy this house.”

And so they did, writing a check for $36,000.

In a 2007 issue of the Pioneer Museum Quarterly, Tenney described her first visit to the house:

“A gentleman viewing the house at the same time with another realtor said to me in private, ‘Who would want this house?’ Outwardly, I answered ‘I don’t know,’ but to myself I thought, ‘I do.’ My mind was telling me no way should we purchase this house, but my heart said, ‘Yes.’”

Over the following months, the family — which grew to include the couple’s children Megan and Braden — worked to restore their new home, replacing the ancient furnace, adjusting the listing floors and updating the outdated kitchen.

One day, a friend of Tenney’s brought her a document. It was an obituary for Samuel Lewis, the home’s first owner. But Tenney made a mental note of another name listed near the end of the obituary: Edmonia Lewis, Samuel’s half-sister.

Famous in his own right, much has been written about Samuel Lewis. A much-loved Haitian barber, he moved to Bozeman in 1868, just four years after the town was founded. Over the years, he established himself in the community through his shop and several homes, including Tenney’s at 308 S. Bozeman Ave.

His name was notably listed beside other well-known residents — Lester Willson, John Mendenhall, William Tracy, Nelson Story and Daniel Rouse — in the area’s first census.

After his death in 1896, Samuel’s house changed hands several times. The decorative interior woodwork became scuffed and worn, the original stained glass windows gathered dust and the massive hand-painted fresco that dominates the living room ceiling was marred by leaking water. This was how Tenney first found the home: with its bricks painted red and carved with graffiti and “gingerbread wood trim” rotting and crumbling.

The project was a massive one and Tenney has itchy feet. She grew up bouncing among cities, both in the States and abroad, and her husband, Dick, works as a traveling doctor. According to Tenney, the pair have had “20 permanent addresses,” from California to Haiti to South Korea, never staying in one place too long. A few years after purchasing the Lewis house, the couple moved to Chicago, but kept the home, to which Tenney felt a special connection.

In Chicago, Tenney went back to school at Columbia College, where she studied art. One day while browsing a bookstore, she opened a book to a page and recognized a familiar name: Edmonia Lewis.

“I call it synchronicity,” she said. “I said ‘Oh, OK, that’s what I’m supposed to do.'"

Tenney began studying Edmonia, tracing the artist’s history from her beginnings in New York to her time in Europe and the mystery surrounding the end of her life. She connected with a group of “Edmonia-ites” and took a trip to Rome to see where the artist had spent much of her life.

But the thread that connected it all was the little house on Bozeman Avenue, where Tenney and her husband still reside.

“Someone else could have purchased this house, they could have torn this house down and no one would have known of the history,” she said. “I ended up being so close to Samuel and Edmonia and it is awesome. It’s just been a big part of my life and everywhere we went, it remained a part of my life because there was this connection.”

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Born around 1845 in what is now Rensselaer, New York, to an African-American father and Mississauga-Ojibwe mother, Edmonia’s Native American family called her Wildfire.

Both parents died by the time she was 9, and she and her older half-brother Samuel were taken in by a pair of aunts. The aunts taught Edmonia how to weave Ojibwe baskets, which they sold to tourists at Niagara Falls, along with handmade belts and snowshoes.

As soon as he was old enough, Samuel, who went by the name Sunrise, went west, following the gold rush of the 1850s.

Edmonia spent several years at a Baptist abolitionist school before leaving after being, in her own words, “declared to be wild.”

“They could do nothing with me,” she would later say.

From there, the precocious teen was sent to Oberlin College in Ohio, where she began to study art. In 1859, Oberlin was one of the only colleges in the country open to women and minorities, but for Edmonia the experience was far from progressive. One night, she was beaten to near death after being falsely accused of poisoning a pair of fellow students. Though she was later tried and acquitted, the incident clung to her and she was forced to leave Oberlin for Boston in 1863, where she began her career as a sculptor.

Despite never graduating, her years at Oberlin, which included classes on drawing and sculpture, gave Edmonia’s work a solid foundation. What followed, however, was a study in character.

In his thorough tome written with the help of artist Romare Bearden titled “A History of African-American Artists: From 1792 to the Present,” journalist Harry Henderson describes the challenges faced by Edmonia as she attempted to forge her career.

“It was less her technical skills that worked against Lewis than a subtle, unconscious unwillingness to accept a black person as an artist,” Henderson writes. “Edmonia Lewis’s struggle was unique. Like other artists, she had to establish her own aesthetic values and artistic identity — but she had to do this in the face of strong prejudices against women, African-Americans and Native Americans. Nothing like this was endured by any other artist of her day.”

Many of Edmonia’s first customers were abolitionists, to whom she sold plaster medallions of John Brown — the anti-slavery rebel who famously led a raid on a federal armory at Harpers Ferry — and William Lloyd Garrison. But she struggled to establish herself outside of abolitionist circles, and several artists flatly refused to instruct her.

Undeterred, Edmonia took these prejudices head on, becoming one of the first African-American artists to advertise herself as “colored.”

“In doing this, she took the slaveholders’ contention that black people were incapable of art and turned it on its head to her advantage, making it a reason to see her work,” Henderson writes.

The niche success of her early works, including the busts for which she is now famous, provided Edmonia with enough money to move to Italy, where the artistic movement of Neoclassicism was in full swing and the sociocultural climate was more favorable to artists of color.

It was there, in Florence and Rome, that she spent the majority of her career. Slowly, her work transitioned from small busts to full-body sculptures, characterized by historical and racial themes.

The Death of Cleopatra

The Death of Cleopatra, sculpture by Edmonia Lewis, 1876. Image from the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

In 1876, when Edmonia was in her early 30s, she completed what many consider her most famous work as part of the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Titled The Death of Cleopatra, the 3,000-pound marble work depicts the Egyptian queen draped in a billowing robe, sitting lifeless on her throne.

By the turn of the century, following the decline in popularity of the Neoclassical movement, Edmonia had moved to England. Not much is known about her later life. It wasn’t until 2011 that it was discovered she had died in London in 1907 at age 62.

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In her house on South Bozeman, Tenney paused on a photo showing one of Edmonia’s early works, "Forever Free." The marble sculpture depicts two figures: A kneeling woman, hands clasped as if in prayer, and a standing man, one hand resting on the woman’s shoulder, the other raised to the sky, around his wrist a broken shackle.

“I look up to her so much,” Tenney said. “She was fearless. She had to be fearless to do what she did.”

It is unclear whether Edmonia ever lived in or visited the Bozeman house. Records show she did at one point return to the U.S. and venture west to visit her half-brother, and Tenney is convinced of the connection.

“There’s no way to actually say that she was here. But he (Henderson) believes it, and I do too,” she said. “It’s a Bozeman story.”

Like many artists, the scope of Edmonia’s impact was not fully understood until well after her death, when the feminist movement of the 1960s revived interest in female artists.

On Feb. 1, National Freedom Day in the U.S., Google paid homage to the artist known as Wildfire.

“Decades later, Lewis’s legacy continues to thrive through her art and the path she helped forge for women and artists of color. Today, we celebrate her and what she stands for — self-expression through art, even in the face of adversity,” the site wrote.

Nearly half a century has passed since Tenney began following Edmonia’s life. At 75, the former teacher still travels — though not as much — and is in the process of writing a children’s book. But the house, and its connection to the artist she has spent much of her life studying, still stands, and with it, the legacy Edmonia left behind.

“Meaningful people and places have become a part of my life because of discovering their history. The most profound synchronistic occurrences in my life came after (purchasing the house) and I know there are more to come,” Tenney wrote. “In 1977, I was happy to know why I had chosen Samuel’s house, but I thought that would be the end of it. I was so wrong.”

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Kendall can be reached at lkendall@dailychronicle.com. Kendall is on Twitter at @lewdak

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