Grace Graupe-Pillard Video Interview
Beverly Buchanan Video Interview
EXCERPT OF INTERVIEW WITH BEVERLY BUCHANAN
YERMAN: Your path
to devoting yourself completely to your art has been a very interesting
one. I'd like to discuss this chronology with you and have you share
the influential factors in your background. Let's start with your
father. He was a Dean of the Department of Agriculture at South
Carolina State College. He was also an agricultural agent for the
state. He traveled, advising and teaching tenant farmers and sharecroppers.
As a young girl, you accompanied him on these trips. Can you tell
us about that and how it affected you?
BUCHANAN: Well, it
exposed me to people and places with which I was not familiar. My
father was a man who sent me to Catholic school, because he thought
Catholic schools gave a good education. He believed in exposing
people and himself to different activities and people. He got his
bachelor's at what we call Talladega. According to my Mother, he
was a senior when the administration building burned to the ground
and they wouldn't let any of the students graduate. So he started
all over again as a freshman, eventually ending up at Ohio state,
getting a Master's in Agricultural Economics. When I went to Catholic
school, that meant that I had lots of holidays, so holidays and
summertimes were a time that I had to go around with him. I was
with him when he went to visit some of his students, to see how
they were doing as farmers...because he was trying to convince them
to rotate crops. He was not well received because cotton was growing
there, and it was successful. So why would you try anything else?
This whole science background of your father's...you developed
an interest in science partially because of his influence. You also
talked about the pressures of being raised in a middle-class family
in the fifties, being brought up with the idea that you had to make
a contribution to society. But your family wanted it to be in the
area of medicine. When did you first acknowledge to yourself the
feelings that you had about wanting to be an artist? Because you
got those degrees.
I thought I wanted to pursue medicine, but at the same time
I was always drawing and making things...making objects. It wasn't
until I was a health educator in New Jersey that I...
Is that 1970?
Yes. Well, I started in '69 actually, but it wasn't until
'71 that I tried to give serious thought to medical school. But
then I had to think about whether I really wanted to be a doctor
or whether I really wanted to be an artist, and that was the hardest
thing I think I ever had to decide. And I decided I wanted to try
to be...to see if I could really be...to do what I wanted to do
as an artist. And I wasn't sure what that was. But in the fifties
growing up, especially black kids, you pretty much had to know what
you wanted to do. I never knew anyone who had made a living...you
just didn't know anybody who had made a living as an artist. And
everybody in my family, my grandmother and all her sisters and brothers,
had been teachers. And so by not being a teacher meant (laughter)
that I was really going against the family tradition. It was just
really hard to make that decision.
YERMAN: In 1971,
you started taking classes at the Art Students League.
You had your first exhibit at the Cinque Gallery...
Yes. That was by accident. I had written Romare Bearden a
YERMAN: Before you
even mention Romare Bearden, I'd like you to recount how you met
No, I really want you to tell it (Beverly laughing) because
it's such a great story!
BUCHANAN: Oh, but
it's true unfortunately, it's true! A friend of mine was a friend
of Dizzy Gillespie's, and David Frost was hosting this Art and
Apart jazz concert. Romare Bearden had designed a poster for
it, and I wanted the poster. And I think you could only get the
poster if you went to the conert. It was at Alice Tully Hall. My
friend met me there. We were listening, and at intermission my friend
said, "I'm going to go say hello to Dizzy, why don't you see
if you can find Romare Bearden's poster." And I said "Fine."
So I found the poster. It was something like fifteen dollars,and
I purchased it. I thought it would be great if Bearden could sign
it. There were just mobs of people around this man, getting him
to do the same thing. And I just waited. I thought, "Well,
at some point, this crowd's going to disappear." At long last,
there he was, walking away from this group. And I thought, "Now
is my chance." So I followed him, and walked in this door,
and there I was in the men's room at Alice Tully Hall. I started
backing out, hoping no one would see me, and I backed right into
Norman Lewis...and turned and said, "Oh, my God, you're Norman
Lewis! I loved your work long before I knew you were black."
And Norman took me by the arm. Norman didn't even go in, he was
laughing and he said, "Come over and meet him." I said,
"Oh, no, I can't do that. I can't possibly meet this man."
And so he went over and he said, "Romie, this young lady want
to meet you." And he turned and he asked me if I was an artist
and I said, "Yes, yes, I am." And he said, "And what
is your name?" And I said, "My name..." Couldn't
say my name. Nothing came out. And I just held the poster and he
said, "Would you like for me to sign it?" I said, "Yes,
thank you." And then I said my name.
YERMAN: He became
a mentor of yours.
BUCHANAN: Yes. He
absolutely did. It was like months later, I wrote him a letter.
I told him how we had met. He wrote and said, "I'd be glad
to look at your work. Come and see me." He gave me his address
on Canal Street and said, "We have a gallery for artists."
And that's how it happened. Well, I went and saw the gallery, and
they were having a women's show. And one of the young ladies dropped
out at the last minute even though her name had been included in
The New York Times. He asked if I would be in the show, even
though my name wouldn't be in The Times. And I said, "Yes."
YERMAN: You've stated,
"I want to create things that strike a familiar chord in people
somewhere." What does that mean?
Well, I guess it means that I wanted people to find something
about the work that meant something personally to them. I don't
know at the time why that was so important, but I guess I'm still
trying to do the same thing.
YERMAN: So much has
been written about your work that the term "oral witnessing"
comes up frequently, and your shacks have variously been described
as documents, symbols, visual testaments, statements of cultural
pride, and tributes to humanity. How would you describe them?
Oh, just a bunch of junk. (Laughter)
YERMAN: Come on,
you're being too modest! In your work, do you find that people respond
differently to your sculpture than to your drawings?
BUCHANAN: A little.
The three dimensional pieces seem to remind people of specific places.
In fact, this past week a pharmacist said, "One of your sculptures
looked just like a house where I grew up in Oklahoma, and I went
back home to see it again. You've made me go back home." So
what I am hearing is people saying things to me like that. "You
are making me think about home." - even if home doesn't exist
YERMAN: You are connecting
in a visceral way.
Talking about the way you affect people, let's discuss the
role that you played in actively challenging people's perceptions
about accepted norms in our society. I'd like to start back in 1961
when you participated in a lunch counter strike at Woolworth's in
Greensboro, North Carolina. What exactly happened?
I was pursuing a bachelor's degree in medical technology, I was
swamped with various science courses, which left me almost no time
to join the art club in college. I would hang out with art department
kids anytime I could. And one of the things I eventually was asked
to do was to make some of the picket signs. One night it was raining,
and a young lady came to my room and said, "There's no one
downtown picketing Woolworth's. People are going to think that we
don't want to picket because it's raining; that we're too good to
go out in the rain." And I said, "Oh, no, let's go!"
So about five of us went and we went without escorts, which was
against everything we had been taught to do...and without picket
signs! A little mob was waiting for us and beat the devil out of
us with bats that had nails in it. That was quite, quite, something.
YERMAN: In New York,
not too much later in the Sixties, things were not as blatant. But
they weren't too much different when you went to galleries and asked
them to look at your work. And they said, "We don't show blacks."
BUCHANAN: Well, I
was heavily influenced by Abstract Expressionism and I think it
still shows in some of the work. I was used to hearing, "We
don't show abstract work." or "We're looking for figurative
work." I was prepared for that response, not something that
had to do with my being black. And I just thought, "Oh, well,
let me show you one." Because what I thought it meant was that
we don't show black art, meaning figurative art. And since I was
not doing figurative art, I said, "Oh, okay, here's my chance
to show you this." Well, I certainly learned that it wasn't
true, you know? (laughter).
YERMAN: It seems
all the way down the line...then you were getting comments about
being a woman. People would say, "What great work for a woman."
BUCHANAN: Oh, I never
paid much attention to that, because I had always done what I wanted
to do. You know, my family backed me on that. I never heard, "You
can't do anything because you are a woman."
YERMAN: That brings
me to the issue of validation. In an interview that you had in 1989
with an Atlanta newspaper, you addressed that. It was about being
a Southern artist. You talked about how you moved back to the South
in 1977. And you said, "And I want to tell you, I paid my dues.
I didn't sell much and it was hard. Then I got a New York gallery.
All of a sudden, my lithographs are in Southern Accent and I'm getting
calls from Southern corporations who want to buy my work. But that
didn't happen until I got my New York gallery." Then you go
on to state, "I think it's ironic. Now does that mean my work's
okay? Why didn't they buy my work when it was in Atlanta? It's the
same work. It's just that the price is three times more. What does
BUCHANAN: I still
don't know what it means, because it's still happening! (Laughter).
At one time I was an artist in a school's residency program in a
little town between Macon and Atlanta. One of my jobs was to talk
with community groups. I met with one garden club, and they said,
"We don't know about your work. Why?" And I said, "Well,
I have an Atlanta gallery." They said, "Oh, we don't go
to Atlanta. We go either to New York or to Europe to buy our work."
And I think that is kind of a trend that's hard to change. People
still do that. Even if I had work in Atlanta, they would still come
to New York to look for it.
YERMAN: Is there
anything that you would like to say about your life as an artist,
your work, or what you have dealt with in your life?
I had an opportunity to go to medical school. I was devastated
because I said no. I was an alternate at Mt. Sinai, and that was
the hardest thing that I have ever had to do. At the time, I thought
that I really ruined it for other black women. Then I thought the
best thing that I can do for myself is to try to do what I want
to do, and be the best that I can be at that. In spite of health
problems and money problems that happened early, I said "I'm
still going to do this, because nobody's asking me to do it."
And I think that that is what art is about. That it is something
that you have to do and that you are going to do it whether anybody
recognizes it or not. I've met people who've said, "I used
to be an artist." I said, "What does that mean? Does that
mean like you used to be a dancer? You're a dancer because you dance,
and you're an artist because you do things." I hope people
don't give up. Don't give up!
I was invited to give a talk to high school art students in Georgia
who had been selected by their art teachers as prize winning artists.
What I said to them was, "Keep doing what you're doing. Work,
work, do something, no matter what! If you have to use a window
shade, just go ahead and do it and don't let anybody tell you that
you are wasting your time!" I had them all stand, and I said,
"I'm very proud of you. I just hope you keep doing this because
you have to do it. That's what a real artist is. You have to do
it. It's something that you have to do, no matter what."
© Marcia G. Yerman — Women In Art