Thursday, March 23, 2017

Highlights from the Permanent Collection: "Medicine Woman" by Beverly Buchanan

Beverly Buchanan died in 2015, but her art lives on. Born in Fuquay, North Carolina, in 1940, she pursued a career in science and medicine, with master’s degrees in parasitology and public health from Columbia University, New York. In the early 1970s, she shifted to a different path, studying at the Art Students League and beginning to make paintings and sculptures in a variety of media. Her success, especially with her series of works depicting shacks in the rural South, led her to pursue art full time and move back to the South. Among other places, she lived in Athens, Georgia, from 1987 to 2003.

Installation view of "Medicine Woman" at Brooklyn Museum, 2016. Photo: Jonathan Dorado

"Medicine Woman" is gift from the artist, facilitated by her friend and fellow Athenian Prudence Lopp before Buchanan’s death. It stands out among her work even as it clearly comes from the same hand, for “Medicine Woman” is much larger than the scale at which Buchanan usually worked. It uses found objects as in her other sculptures, but in wider variety, and she applied copious decoration to the figure, which also has a name: Evelyn.

In 1993, the artist wrote: “I was always looking for something for ‘HER.’ Something to add and mix [to this] ‘Healer.’” The sculpture took the artist almost seven months to complete and includes wood, glass, textile, paper, plastic, paint, stone, ceramic, foam core, masking tape, metal wire and aluminum foil. Some of these objects were adhered with glue that was failing regularly, but Buchanan was elderly and unable to perform the conservation herself. For this reason, "Medicine Woman" has never been on view at the Georgia Museum of Art. When the Brooklyn Museum approached the Georgia Museum of Art about borrowing “Medicine Woman” for its large retrospective exhibition “Beverly Buchanan—Ruins and Rituals,” which closed earlier this month, its staff agreed to cover the costs of conservation.

Amy Jones Abbe (pictured left), a professional conservator based in Athens who has performed conservation on many other objects for the Georgia Museum of Art, agreed to undertake the job. Working from a few historic photographs and consulting extensively with Shawnya Harris, the museum’s Larry D. and Brenda A. Thompson Curator of African American and African Diasporic Art, Jones Abbe first stabilized the sculpture and then used different glues to reattach objects that had fallen off. She then added a few minimally invasive screws and a piece of heat-treated pine
to hold the work firmly in place. A bit of sleuthing allowed her and Harris to determine where nearly every detached element had been placed originally and, essentially, put the jigsaw puzzle back together. Jones Abbe’s painstaking work should pay dividends, not only for visitors to the Brooklyn Museum, but also for future visitors to the Georgia Museum of Art, where “Medicine Woman” can now be displayed.

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