Beverly Buchanan: Marsh Ruins and Other Works
Summary NoteArtist Beverly Buchanan installed sculptural works in the landscape to acknowledge important places in African American history that have been forgotten—quietly intervening in the landscape and memorializing sites of racial disparity or violence.
Beverly Buchanan (October 8, 1940 – July 4, 2015) was an African-American artist whose works include painting, sculpture, video, and land art. Buchanan is noted for her exploration of Southern vernacular architecture through her art. In 1962, Buchanan graduated from Bennett College, in Greensboro, North Carolina, a historically black women's college, with a Bachelor of Science degree in medical technology. She went on to attend Columbia University, where she received a master's degree in parasitology in 1968, and a master's degree in public health in 1969. While working in New Jersey, Buchanan applied to medical school; although she was accepted to medical school as an alternate at Mt. Sinai, Buchanan decided not to go due to her desire to dedicate more time to her art. Part of this choice consisted of her decision to "express the images, stories, and architecture of her African American childhood".
In 1971, Buchanan enrolled in a class taught by Norman Lewis at the Art Students League in New York City. Lewis, along with artist Romare Bearden, became friends and mentors to Buchanan. Buchanan decided to become a full-time artist in 1977 after exhibiting her work in a new talent show at Betty Parsons Gallery. In the same year, she moved to Macon, Georgia. In 1976 and 1977, Buchanan drew "black walls" on paper. She then began to sculpt in cement. An example of a three-dimensional work from her early career is the sculpture "Ruins and Rituals" at the Museum of Arts and Sciences in Macon, Georgia, part of a series of concrete structures that recall ancient tombs. In 1977 she decided to pursue art exclusively and moved to Macon. She later divided her time between studios in Athens, Georgia, and Ann Arbor, Michigan.
In 1979, Buchanan created Ruins and Rituals, the work for which the traveling exhibition is named, located behind the Macon Museum of Arts and Sciences, followed by Marsh Ruins in 1981, a monumental sculpture located in the salt marshes of the Georgia coast. These public works stand in relation to and in defiance of the historical genocide visited upon enslaved people of the US southeast coast, yet Buchanan carefully crafted her message so that it could be interpreted otherwise. In her proposal to museum leadership for Ruins and Rituals, for instance, she described that the work was to be about the play of light and color, rather than its careful siting near the reconstructed writing cabin of Henry Sitwell Edwards, a 19th-century writer who was most famous for a serialized fantasy that dramatized the voluntary re-enslavement of its protagonist. A set of large cement footings and small step-stones, Ruins and Rituals most resembles square sarcophagi—a public mourning for the black lives lost to the virulent racism of Edwards and his readers. Buchanan also hid a piece of Ruins and Rituals in the neighboring woods; she sank another component into a nearby body of water. As part of her art practice, she would drive—sometimes with her studio assistant, sometimes alone—to neglected graveyards for the enslaved and leave small sculptures. Sometimes she took photographs of these performative pilgrimages, but mostly she didn’t. The unseen, like the unmade, serves as the critical compliment to the heavy materiality of her public sculptures. To fully experience Buchanan’s work, viewers must dig for it.
Buchanan created Wall Column in Macon, Georgia, where she added a few pinches of Georgia clay to concrete and painted the resulting forms in a light patina of burnt sienna. Born and raised in North Carolina, Buchanan became interested in the notion of ruins both urban and rural in 1977. She began to construct cast-concrete blocks, or what she called "frustules," that emulated the rough erosion of weathered buildings. "Frustum" is a geometric term for the base of a cone whose tip has been cut off. The title Wall Column implies that the blocks were originally unified but then transformed into new forms out of a process of demolition.
Sculptures created in New York City reflect the urban landscape, specifically demolished structures, and therefore incorporated concrete. While living in Georgia, she used local materials such as granite and tabby, a composite of lime, water, sand, oyster shells, and ash.
Buchanan is best known for her many paintings and sculptures on the "shack," a rudimentary dwelling associated with the poor. Her art takes the form of stone pedestals, bric-a-brac assemblages, funny poems, self-portraits and sculptural shacks. But potent themes of identity, place and collective memory unite the works uncovering the animus that runs through them: to connect with those around her and reckon with the history that shaped her communities. Buchanan is noted to have seen viewers sitting on her stone art piece Unity Stones, but let the men remain seated because she did not mind people sitting on her pieces as they contemplated the work and it represented.
In 1981, Buchanan created Marsh Ruins, a temporal land art sculpture in coastal Georgia near a commentated site known as "The Marshes of Glenn." To the east of the work was Saint Simons Island, where a group of Igbo people sold into slavery collectively drowned themselves in 1803. This work bears witness to the unmarked histories of enslaved peoples. There she planted three concrete forms and covered them with layers of tabby, a mixture used in slave living quarters. Marsh Ruins gradually disintegrated into the marsh. Buchanan captured that erosion process on video.
On July 4, 2015, Buchanan died in Ann Arbor, Michigan at the age of seventy-four. In the fall of 2016 a comprehensive exhibition of her work opened at the Brooklyn Museum in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. Beverly Buchanan - Ruins and Rituals featured painting, sculptures, drawings, as well as the artist's notebooks and photographs form her personal archive. Buchanan's work is in the collection of the Addison Art Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, Georgia Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia.
Scope and Content
During the 1980s, after moving to rural Georgia from New York, Beverly Buchanan began to install sculptural works in the landscape to acknowledge important places in African American history that had been forgotten. Her site-specific outdoor sculptures quietly intervene in the landscape and memorialize sites of racial disparity or violence. Sometimes they are tucked into public parks or hidden in nondescript places, and they often go unnoticed by those who are unaware of their presence. According to Buchanan, “… 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!'”
When she was young, Buchanan often used stones to mark places that were important to her. Between 1978—81 she began to make Frustula sculptures from concrete and stones; their formal qualities linked them to aesthetics of Minimalism and Land Art. She continued to make Frustula sculptures by casting concrete in containers including recycled bags, milk cartons, and cardboard boxes. Before pouring her large sculptures, she often made table-top maquettes. When she finished the Frustula she would arrange them in clusters and photograph them.
Buchanan installed Marsh Ruins in 1981 in Glynn State Park in Brunswick, Georgia. Located on the salty, coastal shore of central Georgia, Buchanan installed a series of concrete mounds covered with tabby in the tall coastal grass. Tabby is a cement made from oyster shells, lime, ash, and sand. The inexpensive, yet labor-intensive material was historically used to build slave quarters. Buchanan chose the site to memorialize seventy-five enslaved Africans who survived the Middle Passage but chose to drown themselves rather than live as slaves in the United States.
Materials include photographs, maquettes, exhibition ephemera, documents, and business cards.
Quantity / Extent
Related Archive Collections
Groom, Amelia. Beverley Buchanan: Marsh Ruins. London, UK: Afterall Books, 2020.
CAE Box 259
- Folder 1 Artist Information, 1978 – 2017
- Folder 2 Exhibition Ephemera, 1978 – 2024
- Folder 3 Wall Paintings, 1977 (or before)
- Folder 4 Frustula (1978 – 1981), 1976 – 1988
- Folder 5 Marsh Ruins (1981), 1980 – 2023
- Folder 6 Blue Station Stones (1986), Administrative Materials, 1981 – 2017
- Folder 7 Blue Station Stones (1986), Visual Materials, 1986
- 4#33 Frustula Maquette, Clay and paint, Not dated