A Drawing in the Sand

by Jerry Butler
edited by Katie Mengwasser
It is impossible to remember a time when I did not view my life through the prism of art. Even as a small child on my family’s twenty-acre farm in Magnolia, Mississippi—long before I had access to any “real” art supplies—I used the red, sandy dirt of our land as my canvas and drew with pointed sticks to record both familiar and imagined scenes. Even more than that, though, the love of color and shapes and the beauty of nature were a constant in everything I did. If I was hunting in the woods behind our house to put meat on our table during winter months, I was aware of forms and shadows and the perfect design to be found in nature. If I was plowing a field behind two mules or planting our summer crops, the tilled earth and the blue sky above added to my appreciation of the beauty to be found in simple, everyday surroundings.

I liked farming. I seemed to instinctively know when to plant by the feel of the air, how to best care for sick animals, and how to plan effectively for the placement of crops. I was the oldest child in our family, strong and tall, and from the age of nine I assumed most of the responsibility for the farm chores. Farming was hard but satisfying work. We did our plowing then with mules, not tractors, and I had plenty of time in the fields to dream dreams about being a successful artist in a big city. I dreamed of painting my grandparents and displaying those paintings so that everyone could see what beautiful people they were. Art was all around me, and life was never dull. I found colors and shapes and ideas for paintings in the outdoor landscapes, and I wrote stories in my mind as I worked—stories where I was the hero and the endings were always good. I enjoyed being outside; and I was proud to have, in addition to our farm crops, one of the best gardens in Magnolia. Delicious strawberries, green peas, okra, turnips, and collard greens were my specialties. It was a great pleasure to provide food for my family.

My family was large, close, loving—and poor. My father worked in a box factory during the week, then cut the hair of all the black people in the area on weekends. We had a tough time financially and depended primarily on wild game and our own crops for food. We also grew cotton to earn extra money. We tried to raise enough to make two bales each year. Two bales may not seem like much, but it’s impossible to appreciate how much cotton is in a bale until you have planted it, weeded it, and then helped to pick it. Twelve or thirteen hundred pounds of cotton must be grown to get a finished bale weighing three hundred pounds. We made between two hundred and four hundred dollars each year on our cotton, depending on the price at the cotton gin.

I have a vivid memory of an incident when I was about thirteen and accompanied my father to the cotton gin to sell our crop. Cotton rates were set at exchanges in big cities like New Orleans, then reported in the newspapers. I had read that day that the current rate for cotton was thirty-two cents a pound, but the man at the cotton gin nearest us told my father the rate was twenty-eight cents a pound. My father looked at me as if to say, “Is that right?” I tried to silently indicate that it was not, but when it became apparent that the man was intent on cheating us, I spoke up and said the price was wrong. My father told me to be quiet, then ordered me to go to the truck and wait for him there. As we drove home, neither of us spoke until we were almost there. My father then admonished me to say nothing like that ever again in public. He was telling me that to get into a dispute with a white man was dangerous. We had been cheated out of more than a hundred dollars that day—money that was desperately needed by our family—but my father felt we had no recourse. I was thirteen and dealing only with how unfair it was. After being cheated out of the full value of something we had worked so hard to earn, I never again liked being a farmer. Creating art was to be my life.

Perhaps the most influential and supportive person in my early decision to become an artist was Grand Mo Lou, my paternal grandmother and undisputed matriarch of the Butler family. When Grand Mo Lou spoke, everyone in the family listened. Something in her voice commanded respect and obedience. Once, when I was approximately five years old, she walked the half-mile to our house to join a spring gathering of neighbors, friends, and family. She arrived just as I was finishing a large drawing of family members in the clearing between the pecan and oak trees in our yard. She stood quietly observing my work, then called everyone to come look at what I had done. “Look at this,” she said. “Look at what this boy is doing.” When the others had gathered around the edge of my drawing, Grand Mo Lou almost whispered her approbation. “This is special,” she said. “Black folks have been doing things like this for years—maybe even centuries. It’s just that we don’t talk about it so much.” Even the other kids respected that drawing, after that. It stayed in the clearing, no one’s footprints desecrating it, until a rainstorm washed it away.

From that point on, each time I was asked by anyone what I wanted to be when I grew up, Grand Mo Lou would remind me, “You’re already an artist. That’s enough to be.” That was the way I began to think of myself.

My grandmother had an old smokehouse in back of her home that she had converted to a special place that held her treasures. Originally built to cure meat, it was taller than her house and seemed almost as big; and in the converted smokehouse Grand Mo Lou lovingly kept her maps, books, fine homemade quilts, beautiful plates and vases, and other things that made it hers. I think I was probably Grand Mo Lou’s favorite grandchild—perhaps because I was quiet and often walked down the dusty road to visit her. None of the other children were allowed in the old smokehouse, but I spent many happy hours there. If I got my work around the farm finished, I’d walk the half-mile to her house, and there she would talk to me about art and life. A place was always prepared for me to draw while I was there, and that made me feel as though I really did have some special talent. I was extremely careful not to misuse anything or overstay my welcome, but I did love those visits.

Of all the things Grand Mo Lou collected, she loved her maps of Africa the most. She and I would look at them, and she would point out certain features. “You see this place here? That’s where your great great-granddaddy is from. The people there look just like him.” I always asked to see those maps during my visits. As my grandmother and I looked at them, with all their writing and all their details, we could silently slip into faraway places on a continent greatly removed from Magnolia, Mississippi, and yet so much a part of our heritage.

Grand Mo Lou spoke to me about the great African American artists of the past, but I wasn’t very receptive to learning about them. To me at that time, no black person could do anything that really counted. Blacks were the “poor relations” in America, and opportunities for them were limited. The discrepancy between opportunities for whites and opportunities for blacks was like the difference between playing baseball in a farm field or playing on a manicured field with patterned grass cuts, white lines, real bases, a batter’s box, a pitcher’s mound, and a wire screen behind the catcher. Blacks were playing out in a pasture somewhere and weren’t really in the big leagues in any area of life. Today, knowing what I now know, I’d pick the pasture over the ballpark. A ballpark seems barren compared to the fields where the players can barely see the batter but can jump to full speed at the crack of the bat and leap over rocks and bumps to catch a long fly ball right by the big tree next to the road. You had to play better if you were playing in the pasture.

It took me a long time to figure out that the pasture was better than the fancy field. And it took me an even longer time to realize that there were black artists who actually were in the big leagues. But during the hours I spent in Grand Mo Lou’s smokehouse hearing about black artists, I wasn’t much interested in those who had come before me—the famous black artists who had indeed played on the fancy field. I wanted to be the first real black artist ever. I had no desire to be an artist for black people. I wanted to be an artist for all people, and I wanted to create art that would elevate those who saw it to think about themselves and life itself in a different way.

Entering school was another step in viewing myself—and being viewed by others—as an artist. Because I was tall for my age, I started first grade a year early. Schools at that time were segregated, as were all public places in the South. The grade school that I attended had two rooms, which was typical for a small town black school. Grades one through four were packed into one room, and grades five through eight occupied the other. There was no money for supplies of any kind, so the teachers had to personally purchase whatever materials they used in class. One day a teacher gave me a small picture of a human eye and asked me to draw a large copy of the picture, a copy big enough to show all the parts and their names when she hung it up at the front of the room. I worked on that drawing for a long time, and the teacher used it in her lessons.

Soon I had drawings hanging in both rooms at school. I sometimes spent a good part of the day doing drawings for the classrooms. I loved it. For the first time, I was receiving encouragement for my art from people outside my close circle of family and friends. I also began to receive criticism as people commented on things in my work that were not as good as they could have been. An artist needs both encouragement and constructive criticism in order to improve, and I was helped by the opinions that were offered. I began to branch out and try different things, such as doing portraits of people. About half the time my subjects thought the picture looked at least a little like them. I was pleased and thought that was pretty good.

My family’s church, the Pleasant Springs Baptist Church, was always supportive of my interest in art. When I was a little older, Grand Mo Lou once arranged for me to have a job drawing the Sunday school lesson for the review. She suggested that I draw a picture of Jesus knocking on a door and asking permission to come in. The point of the illustration was to be that Jesus knocks on everyone’s door, but it is the responsibility of the person inside to admit him and be saved. This was an easy drawing for me to do. My grandmother had already introduced me to the work of Henry O. Tanner, whose numerous religious paintings were inspiring to me. Through Tanner I knew what Jesus looked like and what clothes he wore—but Tanner’s Jesus was always white, and my Jesus was black.

Grand Mo Lou presented my illustration of Jesus knocking on a door at the review, a gathering that took place right after Sunday school and before the church service. The drawing was so well received that I got the job of illustrating the lesson for the review every week. Although that meant I could draw on Sundays rather than sit through Sunday school, I had to carefully read and understand each week’s lesson well enough to be able to illustrate it accurately. I took very seriously the responsibility of correlating my drawing with the message of the lesson. I did not want to disappoint the church family that had entrusted such an important job to me.

The illustrations I did for the review led to the first art assignments for which I was paid. I must have been about fourteen when Grand Mo Lou convinced our pastor at the Pleasant Springs Church that he should allow me to paint a mural on the back wall of the baptismal pool. Our Baptist church practiced total immersion, and the baptismal pool was behind the pulpit and had little steps that led into it. I painted a scene showing John the Baptist baptizing Jesus. The mural was both above and below the water line and made John the Baptist and Jesus look as though they were actually standing in the water. The congregation was pleased by what I had done, and they took up a collection to pay me. I was astounded to receive what seemed to me to be a fortune—approximately $140.

Shortly after I finished the mural, my church had a big revival meeting. Those revivals were important events for us. They lasted throughout an entire week and drew people from all over that part of Mississippi. When the pastor of my church drew back the curtains in front of our baptismal pool, visitors from numerous other churches saw the mural of John the Baptist and Jesus, and they all wanted a mural for their churches. The congregation of the church nearest my own commissioned me to do a mural of Jesus knocking at the door. Over the next two years, I had seven commissions from churches in the area, and the collections taken up for my work became larger and larger. The biggest amount I received was nearly $400.

A couple of those murals still exist. They were a source of pride to me at the time, but I would destroy them now if I could. Most artists are not very forgiving of early work that they feel lacks a mastery of technique. Those murals, however, were an important part of my decision to pursue art as a career.

Other things were also factors in my choosing to become a professional artist. One was a small picture of a deer that appeared in a television advertisement. My family didn’t have a TV until I was in high school, but that little black and white set that my parents purchased in 1964 brought the world outside Magnolia into our house. An art school advertisement showed a deer, and beneath the deer were the inviting words: draw me. I drew the deer and sent my drawing to the address in Minneapolis, Minnesota that had been listed in the advertisement. I soon received an art test from the school that contained pictures I was to copy. If my drawings were good enough, the school said, they would allow me to enroll in their program.

I sent the test back to Minneapolis, and the school gave me their sales pitch. There was no way that I could afford to enroll in the full program, but I did sign up for mail-order lessons that were supposed to last for three months. I completed all the assignments in three days. Where they said, “draw,” I drew. Where they said, “do this,” I did just that. And then I happily sent it all back to the school, only to receive a letter saying that I needed to take my time with the assignments. I should not, the letter suggested, try to do all the assignments in one sitting. I paid attention to what the letter said. This was, after all, my very first art teacher. I did everything over again and resubmitted my work.

I had the best time with those lessons. When they were completed, we didn’t have the money for me to continue with the school, and I assumed my art training would end there—at least for the time being. An interesting thing happened that July, however. A man from the art school in Minneapolis came driving down our little dirt road in a big white car. My brother was sent to call me in from working in the fields and tell me I had a visitor. I ran all the way to the house and found a white man sitting on our front porch, perspiring in the Mississippi heat and drinking iced tea.

In Mississippi at that time, a white person just didn’t come to the home of a black family and sit on their front porch. Blacks and whites sometimes worked together, but there was never any socializing. All social contact was completely separated, and this man was one of the first white people I had ever talked with at any length. He told me that I could have a scholarship if I enrolled at the art school in Minneapolis. He was offering me $12,000 a year to finish high school, start college at the University of Minnesota, and work with a studio drawing cartoons. My parents said they would think about it, but the man was hardly off our porch before my mother said, “You ain’t going nowhere! It’s too cold up there. I don’t even know if people live up there, it’s so cold!”

Friends and neighbors, when told about the offer also said I shouldn’t accept the scholarship. Everyone seemed to think I needed to stay in Magnolia and finish my education there. I still regret not taking advantage of that opportunity. As it turned out, after I finished college in Jackson, Mississippi, I returned to my home area to take a teaching job that paid $4,000. The man from Minnesota had offered me three times that amount, plus a free education.

By the time I was a senior in high school, the South was undergoing some dramatic changes. Black people were protesting to achieve basic civil rights, and there were volunteers from the North who came to show support for the demonstrations. The civil rights movement reached Magnolia on the day that my grandmother, Grand Mo Lou, and three of her friends decided to integrate a restaurant in McComb, a city about six miles from Magnolia. I often would drive Grand Mo Lou and her friends to McComb for a day of shopping and eating out. When they ate at the restaurant in McComb, they would have to sit in the “colored section.”

I usually dropped my grandmother and her friends off in McComb, then later came back to pick them up. On the day in question, Grand Mo Lou told me to wait in the car while she and her friends went into the restaurant. I sat there, having no idea what their plans were. Suddenly, two police cars pulled up near where I was parked, and several policemen entered the restaurant. Curious about what was taking place, I got out of the car and looked through the restaurant’s front window. I could see the four black women sitting at the lunch counter—a place forbidden to blacks.

My grandmother was talking to the officers in a dignified way, but the look on her face was one of pure stubbornness. The look on the officers’ faces was embarrassment. They knew my grandmother and her friends, and for that reason—as well as the fact that these were women, who commanded respect, even if they were black—the officers did not want to arrest them. Finally, my grandmother slowly gathered up her things and returned to the car, her friends following behind her. She told me that the officers had been very polite. They had pleaded with Grand Mo Lou to leave without incident and just return home.

I would like to be able to say that my grandmother and her friends changed McComb and Magnolia that day by their courage. Maybe it was me they had planned to change rather than the people in the store. As far as I could see nothing else changed. Tensions increased in our area, particularly after three civil rights workers—two whites and one black—were killed in Mississippi. During those days, my family slept near the windows in the back of the house so we could escape more easily if nightriders came through our area attempting to terrorize the people. I now realize how brave my grandmother and her friends were as they took their stand in that restaurant. They were four of the many people who, over a long period of time, forced the South to change.

I graduated from high school with five friends from my church. The entire congregation celebrated the event, holding a ceremony in which the Reverend Harvey Allen, who was one of my heroes, spoke to the six of us about issues we would face in life and how important it was for us to continue our education. He gave each of us a Bible inscribed with our name. I still have that Bible, and I still remember how his words made me want to reach out and become all I could possibly be. That meant leaving Magnolia and entering college.

I am indebted to many wonderful people who, over the years, believed in me enough to encourage me and help me find avenues for developing and advancing my talent. One of those people was my high school music teacher. She thought my sister Carrie and I were gifted in music and might be able to get a scholarship to Jackson State College in Jackson, Mississippi. Without a scholarship, going on to college would have been impossible. Our teacher took us to Jackson one day, telling me to bring some of my paintings along. If I couldn’t get a music scholarship, she thought, I might be able to get one for art. During that visit to Jackson, I had an opportunity to show my artwork to Lawrence Jones, the head of the art department there. He looked over the four pieces I had with me, and then he left the room. When he returned, he had a piece of paper that he asked me to sign. It was a scholarship that also included a job to cover living expenses. I was delighted—and so was Carrie. She received a music scholarship.

Being at Jackson State not only opened my eyes to art but also to life outside a small farm town. Lawrence Jones brought artists like Elizabeth Catlett and John Wilson to the Jackson campus to talk to us about what they were currently doing. He also introduced us to the work of some artists who were just becoming famous at the time. Two of those emerging artists that I learned about were Romare Bearden and Charles White. Their work was new and exciting, something I had never seen before. Some artists worked with quilts, and looking at their work brought back memories of my grandmother and the other women of our family getting together to make quilts. I was a child and the only male present during these quilting bees. The quilt would be draped over a big table, hanging over the sides, and I could hide beneath the table and pretend I was in a tent or a cave. Now I was looking at pictures of quilts made into art, and I could see a link between the art this artist was making and the art created by my grandmother and the women closest to her. That realization clarified for me the idea that art can be expressed in many forms beyond just painting and sculpture.

At Jackson State I also learned about the great classic geniuses of art, such as Delacroix and Cézanne. One thing missing in my education at Jackson State was instruction about African American artists from the past. There was no information about them included in the art textbooks of that time. Lawrence Jones worked diligently to make his students aware of black people who were artists, but our knowledge in that area was still limited. I knew more about white artists and their impact upon art history than I did about black artists and their contributions to art forms.

My college years coincided with the war in Vietnam. Graduating from high school at the age of sixteen made me too young to be drafted, but I had plenty of friends who either were drafted or who volunteered for service right out of high school. Too many of them came back to be buried at our little church. Living among family and friends in tiny Magnolia had insulated me somewhat from violence, but I learned how destructive it could be when the police and the National Guard descended on the Jackson State campus once with their tanks and armored cars to quell “unrest” when the students had not done anything wrong. I was getting older and learning about important social, political, and economic issues that were affecting my life. New ideas were changing my old ways of looking at things. For one thing, I was becoming more realistic in my view of what I could accomplish. I had always believed that I would be the world’s greatest artist, but I was finding out that the world was full of wonderful, talented artists. I began to feel that it was boastful—perhaps even stupid—for me to think I could emerge from a two-room schoolhouse in Magnolia, Mississippi, to become a legendary artist. I loved art, but my background in it was limited and there seemed to be so much to learn. I now understand that those doubts and that period of reassessment were typical of the shift in thinking that most college students undergo as they encounter the vastness of life beyond their early experiences. I continue to learn each day, and I’ve achieved some balance between the universal and the particular. I still dream, and I always hope that the art I create will impart some of those dreams to the people who come in contact with my work.

I was graduated from Jackson State College in 1968 and accepted an offer to teach art in Mississippi. It was then that I really began to learn about racism. If I tried to hand some notes to a secretary, asking her to type them, she wouldn’t touch the paper I had held. If I taught a workshop that included white students, they refused to take directions from me. They didn’t believe that a young black man could teach them anything. My talent in art was dismissed by them as an “uncanny gift from God”—an explanation that negated the work, the discipline, and the study I had put into developing my talent.

In 1970 I decided to leave the South behind. I was accepted into graduate school at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. There I met Frieda (High) Tassagiorgis who helped me to learn about the history of African American art. Frieda is a dedicated and talented artist who made learning about the many talented men and women who came before me interesting. She also provided opportunities for me to learn of other black artists who were contemporaries. I found my own art being influenced by those I studied, and I was beginning to find out where I wanted to go with my art. I interacted with fellow black students interested in their heritage also. African American art students from Madison, Milwaukee, and even some from Chicago, formed a group called Common Bond. In that group we debated art and politics. We visited Chicago and spoke with young black artists there who were receiving a lot of attention; artists like Richard Hunt and Sam Gilliam.

Much progress had been made in the area of civil rights by the early 1970s, but tension could and did erupt at any time. Many of the Common Bond artists felt we should address political issues in our art; still others in our group chose to create more traditional kinds of art. They argued that art must stand alone and not be used as a tool to elevate a particular segment of the population. For example, Sam Gilliam said his art was not political. Many black artists throughout history have elected to keep their art free from political issues. Their art has nothing about it that says “black art.” Events in the 1970s, however, began to alter the style of black art. Figures like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Angela Davis became central to much of the art produced by African Americans. Most of the Common Bond artists could only exhibit at black art shows, or perhaps they might be featured in “white venues” during February, which is Black History month. I had a hard time getting into political subjects for my art. I wanted my work to be seen and appreciated by all people, and hostile work seemed to draw negative responses. My natural approach has always been a positive one, probably carried over from the attitude I saw consistently held by my grandmother. I knew the kind of artistic segregation we were experiencing was inexcusable, though. It was the equivalent of being forced to play ball in the pasture, as opposed to playing in the stadium.

I had to decide what direction my art was to take. Black Americans lived in a world far removed from the average life of white Americans, and I wanted to show that contrast. I wanted my art to include my experiences. I wanted my art to show Black American life, and I wanted white people to understand that life. I hoped my work would challenge the art world. I looked at artists like David Hammons, whose work shows that you can create an art form that speaks to all people and still be a black artist. I studied artists like Pippin and Bearden, known for making outstanding artworks, and I became interested in doing many of the same types of things. My art now centers on portraying what I know most—a people who extract and create from the restricted elements within their society. I am influenced by artists like Lawrence Jones, Elizabeth Catlett, Romare Bearden, Picasso, Gauguin, and the impressionists, and by groups like Common Bond. What I have absorbed from these influences has helped me determine what I want my art to reflect.

My grandmother, Grand Mo Lou, who had always been such an inspiration to me, died in 1970 while I was attending the University of Wisconsin. I did not have enough money to go to Magnolia for her funeral, and that hurts me to this day. It is difficult to express in words what she meant to me. She was my guiding light. She recognized my interest in art and my ability, and she encouraged it always. All adults have that duty, that responsibility to encourage the talents of the young people who come within their sphere of influence. My grandmother fulfilled that responsibility with love and grace. The whole African American community in Magnolia took their cue from Grand Mo Lou and encouraged me, also. My grandmother made it clear to me from the beginning that my artwork was valued and valuable. Through her encouragement and her championing of my talent, I was able to hold a position in the community based on my artwork. The respect I received as a young artist in Magnolia gave me the confidence to avoid many of the temptations faced by children. I withstood the pressure to drink or take drugs because I held the position of “artist.” I owe that strength and many other good things to the influence of Grand Mo Lou. Now when things are tough she walks by my side with her hands folded behind her back, just like when I was a kid. I feel good about this because as far as she is concerned I was never a kid in art. She thinks that art is all that I should do.

When you attend art school, you are told to forget how your family lived, the experiences you had in growing up, and the struggles of black people for equality. You must do this, you are told, if you want to study “pure art.” Color and form should be paramount in the development of your talent. From the technical aspects of art, you can then carve out an area for your personal growth and your individual style. I don’t want to erase my background, though. I don’t want to forget where I came from and how I grew up. I believe that integrating our experiences, and who we have become because of them, into our art can shine unique light on the realities of life. When the true realities of life are understood, it is obvious that all people occupy an equal place in the human design. That truth should underlie the mainstream of American life. The differences that separate are inconsequential when measured against the similarities that unite us. It is part of my responsibility to Grand Mo Lou and the loving members of the Pleasant Springs Church to use my talents for all.

Today my work is reflecting more individuality of style than ever before. In the past I worked somewhat in the styles of artists I admired—people like Lawrence Jones, Jacob Lawrence, and Romare Bearden. Today I see a flavor in my art that is my own. When I have fully developed the part of my art that is distinctly “Jerry Butler,” I will consider my art truly worthwhile. It will speak from my heart and find its response in the hearts of others. I see my art as coming from that pasture that I mentioned earlier. It’s a glorious pasture where there are no limits, no boundaries. It is a pasture of dreams.

Jerry Butler is Chairman of the Art Department of Madison Area Technical College. His artwork has been featured in group shows and solo exhibitions nationwide.

This article is adapted from his 1998 book for children, A Drawing in the Sand, A Story of African American Art. He has also illustrated the award-winning Sweet Words So Brave, The Story of African American Literature, 1996. Both are available from Zino Press Children’s Books, Madison, Wisconsin or can be ordered via the web at jbutlerart.com.

Illustrations © Jerry Butler