Profile: Beverly Buchanan (1940-2015)

Beverly Buchanan was an African-American artist whose works include painting, sculpture, video, and land art. Buchanan is noted for her exploration of Southern vernacular architecture through her art.

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Early life and education

Buchanan was born in Fuquay, North Carolina, and was raised by her great-aunt and uncle in Orangeburg, South Carolina, where her adoptive father was dean of the School of Agriculture at South Carolina State College—then the only state school for African Americans in South Carolina.

In 1962, Buchanan graduated from Bennett College, in Greensboro, North Carolina, a historically black women’s college, with a bachelor of science degree in medical technology. She went on to attend Columbia University, where she received a master’s degree in parasitology in 1968, and a master’s degree in public health in 1969. While working in New Jersey, Buchanan applied to medical school; although she was accepted to medical school, Buchanan decided not to go due to her desire to dedicate more time to her art.

Career

In 1971, Buchanan enrolled in a class taught by Norman Lewis at the Art Students League in New York City. Lewis, along with artist Romare Bearden, became friends and mentors to Buchanan. Buchanan decided to become a full-time artist in 1977 after exhibiting her work in a new talent show at Betty Parsons Gallery. In the same year, she moved to Macon, Georgia.

In 1976 and 1977, Buchanan drew “black walls” on paper. She “wanted to see what the wall looked like on the other side” and put four walls together in three dimensions. She then began to sculpt in cement. An example of a three-dimensional work from her early career is the sculpture “Ruins and Rituals” at the Museum of Arts and Sciences in Macon, Georgia, part of a series of concrete structures that recall ancient tombs.

Buchanan is best known for her many paintings and sculptures on the “shack,” a rudimentary dwelling associated with the poor. Scholar Janet T. Marquardt argues that Buchanan treats shacks not as documentary elements but as “images of endurance and personal history”; often using bright colors and a style of childlike simplicity, the works “evoke the warmth and happiness that can be found even in the meanest dwelling, representing the faith and caring that is not reserved for privileged classes.” Her art takes the form of stone pedestals, BRIC-a brac assemblages, funny poems, self-portraits and sculptural shacks. But potent themes of identity, place and collective memory unite the works uncovering the animus that runs through them: to connect with those around her and reckon with the history that shaped her communities.

In 1981, Buchanan created Marsh Ruins, a temporal land art sculpture in coastal Georgia near a commentated site known as “The Marshes of Glenn.” To the east of the work was Saint Simons Island, where a group of Igbo people sold into slavery collectively drowned themselves in 1803. This work bears witness to the unmarked histories of enslaved peoples. There she planted three concrete forms and covered them with layers of tabby, a mixture used in slave living quarters. Marsh Ruins gradually disintegrated into the marsh. Buchanan captured that erosion process on video.

Buchanan said of her work, “My work is a logical progression of my early interest in textures and surfaces and walls. The early “walls” were lonely, freestanding, fragmented things. When I lived in New York I was looking for things that were demolished. That gave them character. I liked to imagine who might have lived in the apartment, and whose home it might have been. Each family that moved in repainted the walls of their color. When a building is torn down the various layers of color are exposed. It is almost surgical–like looking through a microscope and looking at different layers of tissue and media.”

On July 4, 2015, Buchanan died in Ann Arbor, Michigan at the age of seventy-four. In the fall of 2016, a comprehensive exhibition of her work opened at the Brooklyn Museum in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. Beverly Buchanan – Ruins and Rituals featured paintings, sculptures, drawings, as well as the artist’s notebooks and photographs from her personal archive.

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