Drawn from life

Different strokes

Drawn from life

united colours A painting by Jerry Butler.

Written, illustrated and designed by African American artist Jerry Butler, A Drawing in the Sand (Zino Press Children’s Books, Wisconsin /1998) is a slim book, ostensibly written for children. But thanks to its evocative biographical content, it would interest not only adult readers but even those who are not initiated into art.

Butler, who won the Elizabeth Burr Award for A Drawing in the Sand has published educational posters, designed public art works, and held numerous advisory positions for promotion of arts in his country. His work has been included in several important exhibitions and books like Sweet Words So Brave, Black Body Parts, and Permission to Paint Please.

In A Drawing in the Sand, Butler (b.1947) recalls his early days in Magnolia, Mississippi, where his family had 20 acres of farmland. His father worked in a box factory during the week, and on weekends became the barber for all the Black people in the area. Since he didn’t have much time for ploughing and crop tending, that became Butler’s job from his very early days.

“I knew when to plant by the feel of the air and dirt, and how to care for sick animals by instinct, and how to plan where crops would be planted. When I was about nine years old I took over most of the chores on our farm… Art had to wait till the farming was finished. The funny thing is, I kept thinking about art all the time. I’d spend hours out in the fields following two mules and looking at the sky, dreaming up paintings, picking out forms in the clouds as they moved into and out of images in my mind. I’d look at the tree line on the woods and find shapes to fit into a painting. I’d also write stories in my mind... Art was all around me and life was never dull.” Butler drew “all the time, walking around the clearing, scratching things in with a pointed stick”; he drew on the sand and produced pictures of cowboys, soldiers, and his own family, and those were his first artworks.

The first person to recognise his talent was his grandmother who told him that art was special. “Black folks have been doing things like this (art) for years — maybe even centuries,” she said. “It’s just that we don’t talk about it so much.”

She also showed him the many things she collected like maps, books, fine homemade quilts, plates and vases. She brought him posters and pamphlets about art, and told him about Negro artists. From her maps, Butler learnt that his ancestors came to the United States as slaves from Africa.  

Butler grew up in an era when “every public place in the South was segregated”; Blacks and Whites had to stay apart in places like restaurants, buses and parks. When he was 13, his father sold cotton to the gin; the White man deliberately gave him less than the fixed price. When Butler protested, his father asked him to shut up. “He was telling me that raising a fuss with White people was very dangerous. I learned something there. We had just been cheated out of something we’d worked hard to earn.”

Art jobs

Fortunately for Butler, his talent for drawing was recognised even in his school days. When he was a bit older, he got to draw at the Sunday school of the family’s church; his Jesus was, understandably, black. His first paying art job was in illustration. When he was about 14, he was commissioned to make a mural and got “something like $140, an unbelievable amount of money.” The success of the mural led to further assignments in nearby churches and the money got bigger and bigger.

Butler’s entry into art education too was interesting. He took up a short-term art course, and completed all lessons that were supposed to last for three months in three days! He was asked to slow down, take his time and not to do them all in one sitting. “I had the best time in my life with those lessons.”

When he was a senior in high school, the Civil Rights movement reached Magnolia. Black people were fighting for some pretty simple rights. “After three civil rights workers — two White, one Black — were killed in Mississippi, tensions were very high. I remember our family sleeping near the windows in back of the house so if night riders came, we wouldn’t be trapped.”

It was his admission at Jackson State College in Jackson, Mississippi, with scholarship that really opened his eyes to art — and to life outside a small farm town. Besides watching the works of other artists, he also realised that art wasn’t just painting and sculpture — there were many kinds of art. He also became aware of the important social, political and economic issues that were affecting him. He saw how his friends who were drafted into the Vietnam War came back in coffins. “I learned about violence right there at Jackson State when the police and the National Guard drove tanks and armored cars on the campus when the students hadn’t done anything wrong. All these things together forced new ideas into my head. ”

In simple and lucid language, the book reveals Butler’s personal struggles, fears, conflicts and beliefs. “The lives of Black Americans were very different from Whites, and I wanted to show that contrast… My art now looks at how racism has affected all people in America… All of the events of our times are important in the understanding of truth. As an artist, my job is to find new ways to show what’s happening today in a meaningful and interesting way.”

The book also features brief biographies of 15 African-American artists like Edward Bannister (1828-1901), a barber-turned-artist; Robert Duncanson (1821-1872) who was the best African American painter of the United States in the 1950s; and Edmonia Lewis (date of birth and death unknown) whose success spurred generations of artists and expanded the horizons of Black feminists.

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