Artist Benny Andrews combines styles and mediums in ‘Mix Master’ at the MFA

By J.A. Jones, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG – Viewing the collection at the Museum of Fine Arts new show “Benny Andrews: Mix Master,” one is offered a glimpse into the expansive field of Andrews’ work as an artist, activist, educator and intellect.

The works, on loan from Professor Edward J. Littlejohn, include some of Andrews’ line drawings, sketching, paintings and collages. The show delivers a window into Andrews’ eclectic styles, with delicately drawn line renderings displayed alongside boldly colored, expressionistic takes on human figures.

Especially striking in the show are some of Andrews’ 3-D collage works, as well as color etchings he produced for author Flannery O’Connor’s 1961 short story on the subtleties of southern racism “Everything That Rises Must Converge” published by the rare-books publisher Limited Editions Club.

Born to a large family in the rural community of Plainview, Ga., just outside Madison, his father George was also an artist who became known as the “Dot Man.” While his father and mother, Viola, both valued education, young Andrews was only allowed to attend high school, a four-mile walk from his home when the fields were wet. Finances demanded he worked the fields his family sharecropped the rest of the year.

Andrews became his family’s first high school graduate.  After receiving a scholarship to attend what was then Forth Valley College for two years, he joined the air force and served until 1953. Through the G.I. Bill, he then attended and graduated from the Art Institute of Chicago, receiving his Bachelor of Fine Arts.

Within a few years, he relocated to New York, gained a solo show and a handful of awards – and just as quickly was embroiled in the social justice activities that would become another of his life-long callings.

In 1969, in response to an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that was titled “Harlem on My Mind: Cultural Capital of Black America” – a showing of photos and newspaper articles about the community, which was notably absent of any actual artwork or contributions by African Americans – Andrews co-founded the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (BECC) to protest the exhibit.

Over the next few years, Andrews and BECC would raise awareness on a number of social issues, including the prison system and the anti-Vietnam war movement.

Profoundly moved by, and in response to, the 1971 Attica uprising at the prison facility in upstate New York, Andrews was not only moved to paint but also moved to begin The Prison Art Program.

At the MFA exhibit, one can also view a copy of the now impossible to find “Attica Book,” co-published by the BECC and the Artists and Writers Protest Against the War in Vietnam. The publication offers a body of work inspired by and drawing attention to the social climate.

Andrews taught at Queens College in New York from 1968 to 1997 and was the director of visual arts at the National Endowment for the Arts from 1982 to 1984.

An activist and educator, right up to his death in 2006, was working on an art project with children in the Gulf Coast who had lost their homes during Hurricane Katrina.

Andrews’ work now hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the same museum he formed BECC to protest in ’69. His work is also on view at the Art Institute of Chicago, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Harlem’s Studio Museum, New Orleans’ Ogden Museum of Southern Art and the Hirshhorn in Washington, D.C.

“Benny Andrews: Mix Master” is at the MFA until Aug. 26, and it’s more than worth it to take in these works by a vital figure who called for— and created – not only art but change, in America’s cultural landscape.

The Museum of Fine Art (MFA) is located at 255 Beach Dr. N.E. Open Monday-Wednesday, Friday and Saturday from 10-5 p.m.; Thursday from 10-8 p.m. and Sunday from noon-5 p.m.

For more information, please call 727.896.2667 or visit mfastpete.org.

To reach J.A. Jones, email jjones@theweeklychallenger.com.

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