Rose Library exhibition examines intersecting lives and work of Benny Andrews, Flannery O’Connor, and Alice Walker

Left to right: 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; and 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 will bring 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 Oct. 16, 2023, in the Schatten Gallery on Level 3 of Emory’s Woodruff Library and will run through July 12, 2024. The public opening event on Nov. 2 will include a conversation with the curators, a live music performance and a reception. Register for the Nov. 2 event here.

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 through 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”

“At the Crossroads” was curated by artist and author Tina Dunkley (Benny Andrews); Rose Library director emerita and “Conversations with Flannery O’Connor” editor Rosemary M. Magee, and “The Strange Birds of Flannery O’Connor” children’s book author Amy Alznauer (Flannery O’Connor); and Emory University African American Studies professor emerita Nagueyalti Warren, author of “Alice Walker’s Metaphysics,” and Rose Library assistant director of public services Gabrielle M. Dudley (Alice Walker).

The idea for the exhibition emerged in 2019 when Emory history professor Joseph Crespino and then-Rose Library curator of African American collections Pellom McDaniels III 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 of 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:

  • 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 Walker’s 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 (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 BFA 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 (BECC), 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 1982-1984, 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.

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 & State University) in 1945. O’Connor published two books of short stories: “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” (1955) and “Everything That Rises Must Converge” (1961), as well as two novels, “Wise Blood” (1952) and “The Violent Bear It Away” (1960). She also published many short stories and other 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 be released later this year. Flannery O’Connor’s papers were acquired in 2014.

Alice Walker (born 1944), a poet, novelist, essayist, and short story writer, was born 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. She 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, non-fiction works, and collections of essays and poetry. Alice Walker’s papers were acquired in 2007.

Related exhibit:

Crisscrosses: Benny Andrews and the Poetry of Langston Hughes” features a selection of illustrations that Andrews (1930-2006) created a year before his passing for the publication “Poetry for Young People: Langston Hughes.” At the Carlos Museum, Oct. 7 – Dec. 10, 2023. Curated by Nadia Scott, a senior history major and curatorial studies minor at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia.

Related event:

It’s the Work, Stupid!” Tuesday, Oct. 17 at 7:30 p.m. at the Carlos Museum. In this panel discussion/opening event for the “Crisscrosses” exhibit, Clint Fluker, senior director of culture, community, and partner engagement for the Carlos Museum and Emory Libraries, will moderate a public conversation about the work of Benny Andrews and his legacy as an artist and activist with “Crisscrosses” curator Nadia Scott; Martina Dodd, Curation and Object-Based Learning program director at the AUC’s Robert W. Woodruff Library and curator of “The Andrews Family Legacy” exhibit at the Madison Morgan Cultural Center; and Tina Dunkley, co-curator of the Emory Libraries exhibition “At the Crossroads with Benny Andrews, Flannery O’Connor, and Alice Walker.” Details and signup here.

Related links:

At the Crossroads exhibition page

Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library

Benny Andrews papers

Flannery O’Connor papers

Alice Walker papers