Beverly Buchanan found her calling as an artist after pursuing a career in health education and realizing that she wanted to express the images, stories, and architecture of her African American childhood. The sharecropper’s shack, a disappearing fixture in the rural southern landscape, is often associated with poverty, but Buchanan saw it as an enduring image of vitality and creativity that is animated by the hopes and dreams of its inhabitants. By depicting vernacular architecture and its environment, Buchanan, who lived and worked in Georgia for much of her adult life, constructed a narrative that serves as a metaphor for the triumph of the human spirit over poverty and adversity. Although academically trained, Buchanan utilized the tools often associated with the self-taught artist, such as inserted text, found objects, and loosely applied vibrant color, to create the visually rich textures of the humble, yet complex, structures in her drawings, sculptures, prints, and photographs.
Born in Fuquay, North Carolina, on October 8, 1940, Buchanan was the adopted child of Marion and Walter Buchanan. She spent her childhood in Orangeburg, South Carolina, where her father was dean of the School of Agriculture at South Carolina State College. While growing up she often accompanied her father as he visited farmers across the state, and she became fascinated with the “homemade” architecture, the environment, and the people she encountered. Although she liked to draw, Buchanan pursued her interest in science and medicine as a professional vocation. She entered Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1958 and was awarded a degree in medical technology four years later. She later attended Columbia University in New York City, completing a master’s degree in parasitology in 1968 and a master’s degree in public health in 1969.
While working as a health educator in New Jersey, Buchanan applied to medical school. When she was accepted as an alternate, she began to reconsider her chosen career path and to acknowledge her longing to be an artist. She enrolled in a class taught by Norman Lewis at the Art Students League in 1971 and was encouraged by Lewis and Romare Bearden, who became friends and mentors. Her early work, which was quickly included in group exhibitions in New York City, was abstract and consisted of Black paintings and concrete sculptures that evoked urban ruins. The artist then began depicting shacks and vernacular architecture, the work for which she is best known. In 1977 she decided to pursue art exclusively and moved to Macon. She later divided her time between studios in Athens, Georgia, and Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Buchanan photographed specific structures and their surroundings to use as memory aids in her commemoration of the environments and rural farmers encountered in her childhood. Her work is a tribute to the improvisational techniques, resilience, and tenacity of those who have to make do with what they have. She often exhibited the photographs alongside her drawings and sculptures. Unique decoration, plants, flowers, and surrounding landscapes form an integral part of Buchanan’s vision but do not always make a direct appearance in her work. Her expressionistic style pays homage to the memories of persistence, creativity, and hope that were grounded in her early observations of life in the rural South.
Buchanan was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in sculpture in 1980, was a Georgia Visual Arts honoree in 1997, and received an Anonymous Was a Woman Award in 2002. In 2005 she was a distinguished honoree of the College Art Association Committee for Women in the Arts. Her work has been widely exhibited throughout the United States and is held in numerous private and public collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City; the Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts; and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City.
Buchanan died at the age of seventy-four on July 4, 2015, in Ann Arbor.