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Emory Libraries exhibition examines intersecting lives and work of Benny Andrews, Flannery O'Connor and Alice Walker
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Laura Diamond
side-by-side images of Benny Andrews, Flannery O'Connor and Alice Walker

A major exhibition in the Schatten Gallery of Emory’s Woodruff Library will be the first to bring together the lives and work of three Georgia-born artists: (l-r) painter/illustrator Benny Andrews and writers Flannery O’Connor and Alice Walker. “At the Crossroads with Benny Andrews, Flannery O’Connor and Alice Walker” opens Oct. 16.

— Benny Andrews, photo courtesy of SCAD and with permission of the Benny Andrews estate; Flannery O’Connor, photo courtesy of Ina Dillard Russell Library, Georgia College and State University; Alice Walker, photo by Rhoda Nathans, The New York Times.

Emory University’s Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library will open a major exhibition in October that brings together, for the first time, the lives and work of three Georgia-born artists: painter/illustrator Benny Andrews and writers Flannery O’Connor and Alice Walker.

“At the Crossroads with Benny Andrews, Flannery O’Connor and Alice Walker” opens Monday, Oct. 16, in the Schatten Gallery on Level 3 of Emory’s Woodruff Library. “Crossroads” will run through July 12, 2024.

The public opening event on Thursday, Nov. 2, will include a conversation with the curators, a live music performance and a reception. Register for the Nov. 2 event.

Andrews (1930-2006, from Plainview), O’Connor (1925-1964, from Milledgeville) and Walker (1944 -, from Eatonton) all emerged from small towns within a 50-mile radius of each other in middle Georgia. Although they moved away from Georgia to pursue their education and lives in other states, their archival papers reside together in the Rose Library.

The exhibition draws its inspiration and materials from those three collections and from O’Connor’s short story “Everything that Rises Must Converge.” The three artists are connected through this story, first published in 1961 and later illustrated by Andrews and addressed by Walker in her short story “Convergence” and her essay “Beyond the Peacock: The Reconstruction of Flannery O'Connor.” O’Connor’s story offers a deep critique of white Southern racism as revealed through a racialized encounter on a bus between two pairs of mothers and sons.

Several other public events will be held in spring 2024 in connection with “At the Crossroads,” including artistic performances and a panel discussion to address engaging with artists who are not without controversy.

“While each of these artists is internationally known through their writings and art, few in the world have had access to them through their archives,” says Jennifer Gunter King, director of the Rose Library. “Thanks to the thoughtful work of the curators, the exhibit is as much about the artists as it is an opportunity to reflect on the factors that shape our own worldviews, and how we respond to our worlds through the choices we make and the art we create. All ages will be inspired and challenged by the exhibition, and we look forward to the robust engagement and conversations the exhibition invites.”

Developing “At the Crossroads”

Curators for the “At the Crossroads” exhibit include the following for each featured artist:

  • Benny Andrews: Tina Dunkley, artist, Clark Atlanta University Art Museum curator emerita and author of "The Merikins: Forgotten Freedom Fighters in the War of 1812"
  • Flannery O’Connor: Rosemary M. Magee, Rose Library director emerita and “Conversations with Flannery O’Connor” editor, and Amy Alznauer, author of the children’s book “The Strange Birds of Flannery O’Connor”
  • Alice Walker: Nagueyalti Warren, Emory University African American studies professor emerita and author of “Alice Walker’s Metaphysics,” and Gabrielle M. Dudley, Rose Library assistant director of public services

The idea for the exhibition emerged in 2019 when Joseph Crespino, Emory's Jimmy Carter Professor of History, and Pellom McDaniels III, then-Rose Library curator of African American collections, shared Andrews’ illustrated, limited edition book with Emory undergraduate students. The two imagined how impactful it would be to display the volume in an exhibition setting. Though McDaniels passed away in April 2020, that original vision informs this exhibition.

Through the objects on view, visitors will gain a sense of the artists’ creativity, personalities, complexities and worldviews through their work and personal letters. Among the items in the exhibition are:

  • Childhood and family photos, sketchbooks, drafts and original finished artwork from Andrews’ extensive career; selections from his personal writings and journal entries; and personal memorabilia, including correspondence and invitations to gallery openings;
  • Never-before displayed materials from O’Connor’s papers, including childhood drawings and writings; literary drafts and manuscripts of her short stories and her novel “Wise Blood;” private letters with friends and colleagues; and intimate personal items such as her passport, rosary beads and a prayer book; and
  • Walker’s teenage scrapbook filled with poems, clippings and photographs; images of Walker and her friends and family members from her time in Georgia, New York, Mississippi and California; selections from her earliest magazine and short story writings to her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Color Purple;” and a handmade quilt and other artifacts from her life. 

Emory Libraries’ exhibition team was charged with designing this thought-provoking exhibition, drawing on the curators’ scholarship to demonstrate how these three different artists’ work intersected.

“This exhibition, by its subject matter, scope and complexity, has challenged us,” says exhibitions manager Kathy Dixson. “Multiple people have been involved in bringing this project together in its final form. I’m confident that their amazing work will impress and inspire audiences — from people who have never read a book by O’Connor or Walker or viewed an artwork by Andrews, to those who have researched their lives and works extensively.”

About the artists 

Benny Andrews

Benny Andrews (1930-2006), a painter and activist, was born the second of 10 children in Plainview, Georgia, where he spent his childhood years until graduating from a Madison, Georgia, high school. He attended Fort Valley State College, enlisted in the United States Air Force and later earned a bachelor of fine arts degree in painting from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1958 before moving to New York. He is known for his practice of incorporating collaged fabric and other material into his figurative oil paintings and was exhibited nationally, with works represented in major museum collections nationwide.

Andrews taught at Queens College of the City University of New York for 29 years. He became a spokesman for artists, and in 1969 co-founded the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition, which protested the “Harlem on My Mind” exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for its lack of African American artists. From 1982-84, he directed the Visual Arts Program for the National Endowment for the Arts. He received numerous awards and accolades, including election into the National Academy in 1997.

Rose Library acquired Benny Andrews’ papers in 1999; the library is also home to the papers of his brother, Raymond Andrews, and his mother, Viola Andrews.

Flannery O’Connor

Mary Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964), a Southern Gothic writer, was born in Savannah, Georgia, and later moved with her family to Milledgeville, Georgia. She graduated from Georgia State College for Women (now Georgia College and State University) in 1945.

O’Connor published two books of short stories (“A Good Man Is Hard to Find” in 1955 and “Everything That Rises Must Converge” in 1961) as well as two novels: “Wise Blood” (1952) and “The Violent Bear It Away” (1960). She also published many other short stories and books and won multiple awards, including three O. Henry Awards for short fiction, and, posthumously, a National Book Award in 1972 for “The Complete Stories” and the National Book Critics Circle Special Award for her collected letters. She was diagnosed with lupus (as her father was) in 1952 and died of the disease 12 years later. O’Connor is the subject of a new feature film, “Wildcat,” to release later this year.

Rose Library acquired Flannery O’Connor’s papers in 2014.

Alice Walker

Alice Walker, a poet, novelist, essayist and short story writer, was born in 1944 in Eatonton, Georgia, attended segregated schools in Putnam County and graduated from Butler-Baker High School. She attended Spelman College and graduated from Sarah Lawrence College in New York in 1965. As a student at Sarah Lawrence, she wrote the poems that would become her first book of poetry, “Once,” published in 1968.

Walker published her first novel, “The Third Life of Grange Copeland,” in 1970. In 1982, she became the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, which she was awarded for her novel “The Color Purple.” The book was made into an acclaimed film directed by Steven Spielberg in 1985 and a musical that opened on Broadway in 2005; a movie version of the musical will be released in December 2023. Walker has published more than 40 books, including novels, short story collections, nonfiction works and collections of essays and poetry.

Rose Library acquired Alice Walker’s papers in 2007.

Opening event for “At the Crossroads with Benny Andrews, Flannery O’Connor and Alice Walker”

Thursday, Nov. 2

5-6 p.m.: Conversation with the curators (Rose Library)

6:30-8:30 p.m.: Opening reception, Woodruff Library Level 3

Register here

Related activities

Crisscrosses: Benny Andrews and the Poetry of Langston Hughes
Oct. 7-Dec. 10
Michael C. Carlos Museum

This exhibit features a selection of illustrations that Andrews created a year before his passing for the publication “Poetry for Young People: Langston Hughes.” Curated by Nadia Scott, a senior history major and curatorial studies minor at Spelman College in Atlanta.

It's the Work, Stupid!”
Tuesday, Oct. 17, at 7:30 p.m.
Michael C. Carlos Museum

This opening event for the “Crisscrosses” exhibit centers on conversation about the work of Benny Andrews and his ongoing legacy as an artist and activist. Clint Fluker, senior director of culture, community, and partner engagement for the Carlos Museum and Emory Libraries, will serve as panel moderator. Panelists include “Crisscrosses” curator Nadia Scott; Martina Dodd, program director of Curation and Object-Based Learning at the Atlanta University Center’s Robert W. Woodruff Library and curator of “The Andrews Family Legacy” at the Madison Morgan Cultural Center; and Tina Dunkley, co-curator of “At the Crossroads with Benny Andrews, Flannery O’Connor and Alice Walker.” Each of these curators will open exhibitions in October focusing on different aspects of Benny Andrews’ life and discuss their particular insights into Andrews and his impact on society. Learn more and register.

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