Beverly Buchanan: symbols of community.
Artists often draw upon personal experiences and memories as sources for their art. Artworks that seem to be about particular people or places often are about more general ideas or themes.
The Artist: Southern Roots and Memories of People
Beverly Buchanan is a great storyteller. She imagines what people might say or do and associates these thoughts into little legends that accompany her artworks. Much of her art is influenced by childhood memories. Buchanan was born in 1940, in Fuquay, North Carolina. As a child, she traveled with her father, a college dean and agricultural agent, as he visited tenant farmers and migrant workers. Memories of these visits with rural families have had an influence on the look and meaning of the sculptures she makes today.
From an early age, Buchanan shared her work with her family and members of her community. She drew on paper, made little structures with grass and moss, and used sticks to draw in the dirt. After attending college and working as a health educator, she studied art at the Art Students League in New York, and began the process of getting her artwork into group exhibits. She moved back to the South, remembering her past as she traveled around looking at tobacco barns and vacated shack communities.
The Context: Rural Communities and African influences
Buchanan has consistently thought about architecture and structures in the rural South and the people associated with them. Generations of tenant farmers and migrant workers of the rural South have lived in dwellings constructed from wood, mud, thatch, tin and other "found" materials. Over the years, the people who lived in these houses added features to patch places needing repair or to "dress up" certain parts. Inhabited or abandoned, these rural shacks suggest the stories of the individuals who lived in them.
Shacks are often clustered together, forming small communities, where respect for family and hard work are valued. The yards are important parts of these communities--places where the members gather to tell stories, conduct business, and finish domestic chores.
Many of Buchanan's shacks take the form of the shotgun house, which can be found throughout the South and has its architectural roots in Central Africa and Haiti. Porches--important features on many of her shacks--are derived from African building design.
The Work: Shacks, Scraps and Stories
Miss Hester's Place, like many of Buchanan's shack sculptures, is constructed of wood scraps. In this piece, she adds bits of tar paper, asphalt shingle, sticks, small stones and other odds and ends one might find at a garage sale. The shack is mounted on a base surrounded by thin planks of wood. A brightly colored rooster, a part of a purple painted toy school bus, toy tires and a small figure of a mule are placed outside the shack, in the yard created by the base. A piece of metal with the word OCONEE is attached to a lower wooden plank.
Perspectives on Viewing: Community Pride and Resourcefulness
Abandoned dwellings whisper to us of times gone by. Vacated structures remaining in groups, suggest lives shared in small communities.
Buchanan celebrates the lives of people bound together in communities of the rural South. For those who live in or have traveled the South, they serve as reminders of the structures and lives that once dotted that landscape. But, her message reaches beyond the southern regions of this country. She prompts us to think of home, family and community. Her legends remind us of times spent with family and friends telling stories about those whose lives have touched ours.
Miss Hester's Place and the legend that accompanies it are not about a person named Hester. Together, they are about how each member of every community has a story. Nellie Mae played and drew in the dirt outside her home; Miss Hester's son was a pilot and she got to visit him in Germany; these are but two of the stories within a broader community suggested by Buchanan's work.
The artist refers to her shacks as portraits and, like all portraits, they tell us a lot about ourselves.
The patching and decorating of one's dwelling, using available materials and a lot of ingenuity, suggests improvisation as a metaphor for living one's life. Buchanan's shacks also tell us about individual pride and resourcefulness.
RELATED ARTICLE: Miss Hester's Legend:
Hester McCoy worked at the air base for twenty-one years and never had a vacation. A mule and an old mean rooster were relics left from when her parents were still farmers. But, Hester couldn't keep the place up. James, her eldest, joined the AirForce. His life-long dream was fulfilled when he became a pilot. She was proud of him and went to visit when he was in Germany for his birthday one year. People still talk about how surprised and excited she was when he had her fly back home on the Concorde!
RELATED ARTICLE: For Comparison
Miss Hester's Place is different from Nellie Rush's House, constructed in 1991. In this earlier work, the artist used wood scraps and bits of shingle to create a shack with a front porch. This shack stands alone, on stilts, without a yard surrounding it. In the legend that accompanies this sculpture, Buchanan writes: Nellie Mae went around the yard, every day, looking for the right stick to draw with the dirt. The yard in front of their house was her favorite drawing spot. The road to town was too dusty and wide and busy. her Grandfather, Ollie Malcolm Rush, built this house for his family, a long time ago. It's called a shotgun house.
RELATED ARTICLE: Questions about Meaning
1. When you look at Miss Hester's Place, what memories or associations come to mind? (old houses, barns, tree houses, shelter of the homeless, Folk Art)
2. Read the stories about Miss Hester and Nellie Rush. What do these stories add to your thinking about the shack sculptures? (People with typical fears and joys might have lived in with typical fears and joys might have lived in shacks like these.)
3. When you think about Miss Hester's Place, what moods or feelings come to mind? (proud, strong) How these moods and feelings different from those suggested by Nellie Rush's House? (Nellie Rush's House is more calm and quiet.) What do you think accounts for this difference? (The use of only a few materials, no added color, no objects in a yard.)
4. What ideas or themes are suggested by Buchanan's shacks and their stories? (people are resourceful; people care about their houses about those who live in their communities; home is "where the heart is.")
5. What do you know about the artist and the context in which the work was made that is in some way evident in these shacks and stories? (As a child, the artist knew shack families; she drew in the dirt with sticks; shotgun houses are found in the South; the Oconee River flows through Athens, Georgia, where the artist now lives; she believes "the spirit" of people is part of architectural structures.)
RELATED ARTICLE: Activities/Extensions
* Ask students to write short real-life "legends" about family or community members. Create three-dimensional structures that suggest something about the main character or event. Exhibit all the stories and structures together to emphasize community.
* Discuss and have students write in their journals about how certain events in their childhood have influenced their art-making experiences.
* Identify abandoned buildings in your community. Work with language arts teachers to have students write stories about the people who might have lived or worked in these buildings.
* Use slab-construction techniques to create a ceramic sculpture of "my room." Ask students to write a one-page story about the person who lives in this room. Discuss how the stories add to or detract from the sculptures.
* Buchanan says she feels a strong kinship to modern artists such as Brancusi, Louise Nevelson, Jasper Johns, Mark Rothko, Milton Resnick and Betye Saar. have students research the work of these artists and show connections between their works and those of Buchanan.
* Have students choose a neighborhood dwelling, tell a story about one or more of its imagined inhabitants, and use "found" materials to create a three-dimensional symbol for the story.
Flomenhaft, Eleanor. Beverly Buchanan: Shackworks: A 16-Year
Survey. Montclair, NJ: The Montclair Art Museum, 1994. Upton, Dell, ed. America's Architectural Roots: Ethnic
Groups That Built America. Washington, DC: National
Trust for Historic Preservation, 1986. Westmacott, Richard. African-American Gardens and Yards in
the Rural South. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee
Press, 1992. Marilyn Stewart is Professor of Art Education at Kutztown University, Kutztown, Pennsylvania.
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|Title Annotation:||art lesson based on 'Miss Hester's Place'|
|Article Type:||Cover Story|
|Date:||May 1, 1995|
|Previous Article:||Cesar Augusto Martinez.|
|Next Article:||Art in public places.|