I got to hear the artist Benny Andrews speak in the 1980s in Memphis, when the Brooks Museum of Art had an exhibition of his work. His art is so vibrant and unique, the elongated characters practically walked off the canvas, shook your hand, and told you their story.
I’d first seen his drawings when I read books written by his brother Raymond Andrews. Raymond was the author of a series of books about Black communities in central Georgia, and their close but dangerous relationship with the White community. Benny’s line work was amazing — simple but expressive with a narrative all it’s own.
Benny and Raymond were from a family of 10. Their father was a sharecropper but also a painter who sparked a creative fire in his children. Benny told a story about his father painting practically everything in the house. His mother had to hide her Sunday shoes to keep him from painting them.
Kathleen Benson, Project Director at the Museum of the City of New York. has written a wonderful picture book Draw What You See: The Life and Art of Benny Andrews, (Clarion Books, 2015).
As a child, Benny drew his family members and the life around him. He went on to become a major influence in American art.
The book opens with a story of Benny as an adult teaching art to children who lived in camps in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The story then moves back to his childhood.
“In grade school, Benny was always the class artist. He copied the comics from the daily newspaper. He drew the stories he heard on the radio and the stars in the movies he went to see in town on Saturdays.
“After school, Benny worked carrying water to the laborers in the fields. At planting and harvest time, he didn’t go to school at all. None of the black children in Plainview did, because they were needed on the farms. Their school year was only about five months long.”
Though most of his friends left school to work in the fields full time, Benny longed to go to high school. His mother prevailed upon the farm’s White boss to allow Benny to go.
After high school, he joined the air force. When he got out, he had the means to go to art school. He’d traveled all over the world, learned new ways of looking at things, but, “Home was always in his heart.” He was inspired by the people around him. “With lots of practice, he became a master at capturing movement on the still canvas.”
I love that he emphasized that you draw what you see because his vision was uniquely his own. He couldn’t stay confined to absolute realism. He saw things with imagination and style. He saw the vibrancy of open spaces. He added texture to his work by sticking paper and cloth on to the canvas.
He was a “people’s painter.” He taught. He shared art. He illustrated children’s books. He opened doors for other underrepresented artists.
Draw What You Seeis a gorgeous book. Without being didactic, the story makes it clear how difficult it’s been for Black people to get an education and to pursue art. Benny wanted to make it easier for all people to become artists.
Unlike many pictures books about artists, this one uses Andrews’ own art work. Kathleen Benson and Benny Andrews worked together before. He illustrated her book John Lewis in the Lead: A Story of the Civil Rights Movement, which won the NCSS Carter Ge Woodson Award.
This is a great picture book to introduce kids and aspiring artists to the work of Benny Andrews.
It’s a delight to look through no matter what your age. It’s like having a little gallery of Andrews work at hand, work that welcomes you in to the beauty and mystery of his vision. There’s excellent additional information and a time line of his life in the back pages.
If you’d like to learn more about Benny Andrew, The School Library Journal has an excellent interview with Kathleen Benson here
You can learn a bit about his brother, writer Raymond Andrews, and life in Plainview for their family here
Follow your vision and thanks for reading my blog!