Benny Andrews | His Life and Art

In "Draw What You See: The Life and Art of Benny Andrews," illustrated with the artist’s oil paintings and collage compositions, Kathleen Benson highlights the words Andrews chose to paint by, and to encourage those he taught.
Listen to Kathleen Benson reveal the story behind Draw What You See, courtesy of drawwhatyouseeBenny Andrews began drawing at age three and never stopped until his death at the age of 76. Kathleen Benson's picture book biography of the artist opens with a trip Andrews made near the end of his life to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, to work with children attending makeshift schools. Benson writes, he "knew that sometimes it was easier to tell a story with pictures than with words" and showed the children how "to use art to express their feelings about what they had been through...." Andrews taught in schools, community centers, and prisons, on occasion taking his college students along when he went to create art with inmates. In Draw What You See (HMH, Jan. 2015; Gr 2-5), illustrated with the artist’s oil paintings and collage compositions, Benson highlights the words Andrews chose to paint by and to encourage those he taught. You and your late husband Jim Haskins wrote John Lewis in the Lead (Lee & Low, 2006) illustrated by Benny Andrews. Did you ever meet Andrews? Yes, I met him, sadly, after Jim passed away. [Jim and Benny's] first book, Delivering Justice: W.W. Law and the Fight for Civil Rights [Candlewick, 2005], was about an activist in Savannah, GA., the head of the local NAACP chapter who used his postal route to spread the word about their meetings. Janice Shay at Savannah College had arranged for Andrews and me to go to Georgia for the book signing.... When we were dropped off at the airport, the plane was very late so we had a lot of time to talk. It was [Janice Shay's] suggestion that I write this book about Benny. How did you do your research? There's a video documentary and extensive biographical information about Andrews in the catalogs [of his art exhibitions]. Janice introduced me to Nene Humphrey, his widow, and she was very helpful in pointing out those stories that were apocryphal and those which were true. I also drew on my experience of writing more than 150 books, many of which were about the segregated South. Did you outline the biography first, or begin by choosing the paintings? First came the draft. Nene Humphrey worked with Lynne Polvino at Clarion to choose the art for the book. I had a chance to respond to the art [and rewrite the text]. You open the book with Andrews’s trip to New Orleans to work with children after Hurricane Katrina? Why? Andrews was a teacher. After he passed away, a memorial was held in the Great Hall at Cooper Union [in New York City]—that's how many people he mentored. There was a fellow who spoke at the memorial who'd been in a prison where Andrews took some of his students from Queens College to work with the inmates. That really resonated with me. xxx

Promised Land, interior art from Draw What You See (HMH) Andrews

One spread that really stood out was Promised Land, coupled with your summary of Andrews's determination to get an education and leave Plainview, GA. Andrews’s family had a radio and there was a local newspaper and movies on the weekends in nearby Madison, GA. He had a strong notion of the world beyond his own, but he didn't know a lot about it except from those sources. You can see the way Andrews elongates his figures in his paintings—and there’s a sense of movement. What doesn't come through on the two-dimensional page is the texture of the collages. The flowers [in Promised Land] are actually fabrics. It sounds like the artist's mother was a very strong woman, to request Benny's leave from Mr. Will [the farm boss], and to support Benny's decision. She was a very strong woman; she realized that Benny had a dream and wanted to encourage him. It was so unusual for a child in a sharecropper family to go to high school—and beyond. She must have had to stand up to Mr. Will or to negotiate additional work to make up for his absence. Do you have a favorite painting of his? I have two. I love [The Cotton Club], the jazz dancers, the movement, the musicians. I also really like the one about Harlem, the family looking up at the tall buildings. [Harlem USA] I saw it in person at the Michael Rosenfeld gallery. It's huge, and it's so textured. It's really wonderful. Andrews painted his whole life, didn't he? Just about. He was a class artist when he was in school, and in the service, he found a way to pursue his art. Abstract art was in favor when he was in art school in Chicago, but he didn't respond to it. He went against the tide to a great extent. When did he start working in collage? The first time he experimented with collage technique was when he was painting janitors at the art school, and he used toilet paper as part of the collage element.... Would you say that "draw what you see" served as a kind of motto for Benny Andrews's life, both toward his own work and also in his teaching of others? Yes, I think it does. It's a way of saying "express yourself," and of course his method was to draw, paint, and make collages. He was so encouraging of everyone—and he took the time to stay in touch with people by writing letters. He would send clippings of reviews and things like that. I was one of his newer friends, so I can just imagine what he was like with his longtime friends. One exhibition of his that I was invited to was at the Schomburg Center [in Harlem]. Another exhibition was at [New York's] ACA Galleries, which at that time represented him. After both, he invited a whole group of us for dinner to celebrate. He was always giving. TB imageListen to Kathleen Benson reveal the story behind Draw What You See, courtesy of

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