By Spelman College Museum of Fine Art
Beverly Buchanan, "In the Garden, the Artist at Home," 1993
A Southern Childhood
Born in North Carolina in 1940, Beverly Buchanan was raised by her great-aunt and uncle in Orangeburg, South Carolina, where her adoptive father, Walter Buchanan, was the dean of the School of Agriculture at South Carolina State College — the only public, historically Black institution in the state. As a child, Beverly accompanied him as he traveled through rural South Carolina advising and working with Black farmers and sharecroppers.
In the homes of these poor Black families, Buchanan witnessed architectural expressions of resilience, improvisation, and endurance that would inform her later work as an artist. Although she would spend portions of her career in New York and elsewhere, the geography and history of the American South — specifically the experiences of African Americans in the region — would always remain a crucial component of Buchanan's life and work.
Untitled (Artist Portrait with Frustula Sculpture) (Undated) by Beverly BuchananSpelman College Museum of Fine Art
From Parasites and Public Health to Visual Art
After graduating in 1962 with a degree in medical technology from Bennett University — a historically Black women's college in Greensboro, North Carolina — Buchanan movd to New York to enroll in graduate programs in parasitology and public health at Columbia University.
Although she applied to medical school after receiving two master's degrees in the late 1960s, Buchanan ultimately decided to instead focus on making art.
Drawing on the visual language of abstraction, the works she created during this time were vaguely architectural concrete forms she arranged into subtly monumental configurations.
Drawing on her scientific training, Buchanan called these works Frustula, a reference to a structural layer found in cell walls. She also described them as her response to seeing abandoned buildings in New York and New Jersey.
In 1977, Buchanan chose to dedicate herself full-time to making art and returned to the South, relocating from New York to Macon, Georgia. In 1980, she was the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in sculpture.
Earth Works and "Marsh Ruins"
Building on the formal vocabulary she had developed on a smaller scale with the Frustula series, Buchanan began making earthworks during the 1970s and early 80s. Installed in coastal Georgia, Marsh Ruins (1981) comprises three deteriorating mounds of cement and tabby.
Tabby is a type of concrete made with oyster shells, sand, water, and ash which was used historically to construct living quarters for enslaved African Americans.
Beverly Buchanan installing and staining Marsh Ruins, Brunswick, GA (1981)Spelman College Museum of Fine Art
The location of Marsh Ruins carries profound significance. To the sculpture's east is Igbo Landing on Saint Simon's Island, where, in 1803, a group of captive Igbo and other West African people drowned themselves by walking into the ocean instead of acquiescing to bondage.
It is also located near the "Marshes of Glynn," a site commemorated in the 1878 elegy of the same name by Sidney Lanier, a Civil War veteran who generations of Southern children learned of as the "poet of the confederacy."
As is typical of Buchanan's work, Marsh Ruins is characterized by its unassuming, nearly anonymous nature. Had the artist not documented and publicized making the sculpture, it could be mistaken for a natural formation.
Yet because of its geographic proximity to nearby sites and particular material engagements, Marsh Ruins emanates a feeling charged with the potency of historical trauma and resilience.
In typewritten notes from one of her research trips throughout coastal Georgia and South Carolina, during which she often visited structures that had been built and inhabited by enslaved African Americans, Buchanan writes:
“Would you say knowing that SLAVE hands built this chimney has a special meaning or says something about SURVIVAL?”
The Williams House (1983) by Beverly BuchananSpelman College Museum of Fine Art
In the early 1980s, Buchanan began making what may be her most well known works: paintings and assemblage-based sculptures of "shacks," the rudimentary dwellings she had seen as a child visiting Black families in rural South Carolina.
Some have seen Buchanan's use of bright colors and abstract forms as reflections of the influence of her teacher Norman Lewis and his associations with abstract expressionism.
With their structures sometimes based on real homes and sometimes imaginary, the shacks functioned as material evocations of Buchanan's memories. Her sculptures are meant to embody the spirit of those who lived there, what she referred to as “emotional groundings.”
In the Garden, the Artist at Home (1993) by Beverly BuchananSpelman College Museum of Fine Art
The Artist at Home
Buchanan's self-portraits sometimes reveal her strong self-awareness and playful sense of humor. On a business card, along with a cartoonish drawing of herself, she described her interests and skills: “Drawing, Magazine Modeling, Race Car Advocate, Painting, Yardwork, Sculpture.”
Although she was a formally trained artist, Buchanan often used materials and techniques associated with self-taught artists, such as incorporating found objects, bright colors, and rudimentary forms into her works.
"Bearing Witness" at the Spelman Museum of Fine Art
Following years of planning and preparation, the Spelman Museum of Fine Art celebrated its opening in 1996 by organizing and presenting the groundbreaking exhibition Bearing Witness: Contemporary Works by African American Artists, which included works by Buchanan alongside works by artists such as Emma Amos, Elizabeth Catlett, and Carrie Mae Weems, among others.
Curated by former associate professor of art history Jontyle Theresa Robinson, Bearing Witness went on to tour nationally. The exhibition publication includes contributions by Robinson, M. Akua McDaniel, Anna Julia Cooper Professor of Women’s Studies Beverly Guy-Sheftall, as well as celebrated writers such as Pearl Cleage and Maya Angelou. This major exhibition fundamentally informed the Museum’s focused emphasis on Black women artists.
Rituals and Ruins
Beverly Buchanan died at the age of seventy-four on July 4, 2015. The next year, the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum presented Beverly Buchanan—Rituals and Ruins, a comprehensive exhibition that featured sculptures, paintings, and drawings alongside photographs and notebooks from the artist's personal archives. Organized by curators Jennifer Burris and Park MacArthur, the exhibition later traveled to the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art in 2017.
“A lot of my pieces have the word ‘ruins’ in their titles because I think that tells you this object has been through a lot and survived," Buchanan once said. "That’s the idea behind the sculptures. . . it’s like, ‘Here I am; I’m still here!'”