Resilient Vessels

Beverly Buchanan’s shack sculptures are research-based architectural representations, which symbolize the cultural identity and experiences of the Southern working class. The rough wooden structures are inspired by her background being raised in the South and her later experiential sojourns through Georgia and the Carolinas to study and document Southern vernacular architecture, such as shotgun houses, barns and shanties made of rough-hewed local materials.

Beverly Buchanan, Untitled (Walter Buchanan Postcard), n.d. photocopy of archival black-and-white photograph, 3 x 5 in. (7.6 x 12.7 cm). Private collection. © Estate of Beverly Buchanan, courtesy of Jane Bridges.

Each shack sculpture is an homage to local communities and their means of survival. In her artful response to these buildings, Buchanan chose to use simple materials and bright colors, evoking joy and playfulness, while also serving as intimate vessels that hold memories and narratives of Southern identity. While the formal elements tell us a great deal of the story, we also learn about the purpose of each vessel through its title and accompanying documentation.

Beverly Buchanan, Old Colored School, 2010, wood and paint, 21¼ by 14¾ by 18½ inches. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, purchase, Larry Mohr Gift, 2017. © Estate of Beverly Buchanan.

The title of the sculpture, Old Colored School (2010), provides insight into the work of art’s content and context. It is a metaphorical replica of a Southern one-room schoolhouse for African American students. The sculpture functions as a visualization of the Jim Crow laws and the systematic disenfranchisement of Black communities. While these schools represent the sordid history of segregated schooling, Black schools were essential structures within African American communities. Schools were considered sacred spaces (Heck, 2010) and symbols of progress, faith and aspirational values. In addition to churches, Black schools were the most prominent settings where intergenerational teaching inspired lifelong learning and opened pathways to desegregation and other victories for civil rights (see: Bridging the Gap, Crossing the Bridge).

While many of America’s segregated schools and one-room schoolhouses are largely defunct today (only around 400 remain in operation throughout the United States); the dilapidated state of Buchanan’s Old Colored School is symbolic of both an architectural ruin of yesteryear and the longstanding social and cultural damage caused by systemic racism. Despite legal and sociocultural victories, schools are still experiencing glaring issues of racial segregation and social inequity (see: Garcia, 2020). Buchanan’s relic of the old colored schoolhouse is both a hopeful ruin of Jim Crow systemic racism, and a sign of Black American perseverance, autonomy and ambition. Regarding this dichotomy, Bucahnan stated, “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—that’s the idea behind the sculptures…it’s like, ‘Here I am; I’m still here!'” (Cotter, 2017).

Buchanan’s work resonates well within art and social studies curricula. Because her work is materials and research based, it enables both tangible and critical explorations into the social and cultural experiences and intersectional identities of Black Americans in the South. Below is a curated selection of pedagogical resources that can be used to teach and learn about Southern vernacular architecture, Black schools during Jim Crow and the art of Beverly Buchanan:

– The Schoolhouse Museum in Smithfield, Virginia has primary sources, including school board meeting minutes and interviews of former students who attended all Black schoolhouses. The museum also offers a virtual tour of their exhibitions and collection:

– An elementary (K-5) school cardboard sculpture lesson plan inspired by Buchanan’s shack sculptures:

The art educational online platform, Artsonia, has 87 additional lesson plans and portfolio examples of student work that was inspired by learning about Buchanan and her architectural representations.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Cotter, Holland. “To Be Black, Female and Fed Up With the Mainstream.” The New York Times, 20 April 2017.

Garcia, Emma. “Schools are still segregated, and black children are paying a price.” Economic Policy Institute, 12 February 2020.

Heck, Peter. “The growth of 19th-century African American schools was a prelude to integration.” My Eastern Shore MD, 2 December 2010.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s