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Benny Andrews

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BENNY ANDREWS: 1930-2006: Native Georgian illustrated America's soul


Activist, teacher, public servant but first and foremost an artist, Benny Andrews, in his field one of Georgia's most accomplished natives, died Friday of cancer in New York at age 75.

The son of a Madison sharecropper, Andrews experienced the American Dream from both sides of the fence. He went from picking cotton in the 1940s to power-brokering in the '80s, as head of the National Endowment for the Arts visual arts program. From living in a shack to having homes in New York, Connecticut and Georgia. From being forbidden to enter a museum in the Jim Crow South to exhibiting in them across the country.

But the extremes of his life neither embittered him nor swelled his head. Somehow his trajectory birthed a powerful empathy that imbued his distinctive artworks with humanity, whether he depicted Native Americans trudging down the Trail of Tears or the guys hanging out at the local pool hall.

J. Richard Gruber, director of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans, observed his common touch when he accompanied the artist on field research for his "Migrant Series."

"He would talk to people --- I saw him sitting on Cherokee chief Jonathan Taylor's front porch in North Carolina, interviewing a waiter at a diner in Route 66 --- and then translate their lives, their gestures and mannerisms into his [artworks]," said Gruber, who has devoted a whole gallery at the Ogden to the art of the Andrews family. "He gave America back to us in his art."

Andrews was a one-man melting pot: of African, Scotch, Irish and Cherokee descent. The second oldest of George and Viola Andrews' 10 children, he was raised in a poor but nurturing family. His father --- known as the Dot Man, for his favorite pattern --- was, in his own words "a born artist" as opposed to his educated son. His mother was smart, strong and determined --- traits her son inherited.

"I'm a survivor," he once said. "We had a cowboy mentality. You always believe you're going to win and ride off into the sunset."

Nevertheless, it was a struggle --- even to be educated. As Andrews once said, "Black kids from the country did not go to high school in Morgan County."

He recalled walking from the tenant houses past the big white house, where the men and boys would meet to go out farming. "And here I'd come on my way to school with my little sack of two sweet potato sandwiches. It was like 'High Noon.' "

Fort Valley State, the black college he attended, offered one art course, art appreciation, which he took six times --- not much preparation for the Art Institute of Chicago, which he attended on the GI Bill in the 1950s. His matriculation coincided with his first museum visit.

In 1958, like many aspiring artists, he headed to New York, where he had lived ever since. He became politically active in the '60s, protesting institutional racism on picket lines in front of the Whitney and Metropolitan museums. Issues of poverty and injustice pervade his oeuvre, moving beyond African-American subjects to what artist Nene Humphrey, his wife of 20 years, calls his "global vision."

"Benny was passionate about art and about life," said Randall Burkett, curator of African-American collections at Emory University library. "He was concerned about the world. I was amazed at his commitment to teaching art. He taught in prisons. He went into elementary schools. We are planning an exhibition of his papers at the library in April, and he was talking about bringing children in from Madison and Atlanta."

Young artists were beneficiaries of his generous spirit as well, through workshops to help them understand the ways of the art world and other programs. Before his death, he requested that donations in his name go to Studio in Schools or the MacDowell Colony, to programs to aid needy and/or minority artists.

Yet, his memories of Georgia and his family were the fundament of his soul and his art.

In fact, when the artist, who at one time played "Georgia on My Mind" on his telephone answering machine, received a John Hay Whitney Fellowship in 1965, he used it to go home to work. His celebration of rural African-American family life, its everyday contentments as well as hardships, are among his most memorable subjects.

True to his Southern roots, the man could tell a story, with wit as well as compassion. His characters pop off the canvas through his idiosyncratic collage technique, through which he builds forms with fabric until they seem almost like objects. They also come to life in fluid line drawings that reflected his keen and nuanced observation of posture and gesture.

Facile in many media, Andrews' output ranged from murals to book illustrations and covers, including those he did for his late brother Raymond, a well-known author.

Andrews never hewed to mainstream conventions. His art was stubbornly figurative when abstraction was boss, hot when art was cool. He bridled at being pigeonholed as a "black artist," lambasting critics for "not being able to see a black figure done by a black artist without automatically assuming that the work is propagandistic or politicizing." Whatever the color of his characters' skins, his subject was the human spirit.

Yet, he was optimistic by nature. Even watching the movie heroes of the 1940s from the balconies of segregated movie theaters as a child, Andrews believed in the promise of the America, Gruber said. As he told an interviewer in 1990, "We grew up with the American Dream. That's why I wore saddle oxfords and tried to look like Pat Boone. ... We grew up that way. I know America." He viewed his '60s protests as part of that promise.

"Ultimately his art transcended all categories," Gruber said. "Benny was one of the most important figures in American art. Period."

Andrews is survived by his wife, Nene Humphrey, three children and four grandchildren. A memorial service is planned in New York in December. An exhibition of his art from Georgia collections will take place at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia in February.

© 2006 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Nov. 12, 2006
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