"I express myself best artistically somewhere between the ideas in my head and the tip of my brush, because none of my finished canvases or any oral statements I am able to make are completely artistically successful. Therefore, I am destined to spend my life pushing my feelings towards the canvas and pulling them toward my mouth in order to satisfy this insatiable need to express myself." Benny Andrews' self-described need for expression began at an early age. His parents, sharecroppers of mixed race descent, struggled to bring up their ten children with dignity in rural, segregated Georgia. In spite of their poverty, education and creative endeavors were a priority in the Andrews home. Their son would rise from this modest start to achieve worldwide regard as an artist, teacher, writer, and social activist, and would draw on his Southern heritage as an enduring source of inspiration.
Upon his graduation from high school in 1948, Benny Andrews attended an historically black college outside of Macon for two years, taking the only art class offered there six times. In 1950, he enlisted in the Air Force and rose to the rank of staff sergeant before his discharge four years later. A beneficiary of the G. I. Bill, Andrews enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1954. During his time at the Institute, the artist recalled that he “was rejected for every show, organization, or club.” Andrews received a B.F.A. from the Art Institute in 1958 and relocated to New York City, where he soon established a thriving career as a collage artist, painter, printmaker, book illustrator, and teacher. His work, represented in important annual exhibitions and high profile galleries, attracted critical praise and commercial success. A passionate arts advocate, especially for the work of minority and female artists, Andrews served as Director of the Visual Arts of the National Endowment for the Arts from 1982 to 1984.
A rich melange of aesthetic influences can be seen in Andrews' wholly unique ouevre: Social Realism, Cubism, Surrealism, and Abstract Expressionism. The collages for which he is best known reflect his desire to transcend the limitations of two-dimensional work or any particular school of aesthetic thought. Assembled of ordinary materials such as torn paper, fabrics, or foil, Andrews' collages serially pursued a variety of topics of keen importance to the artist: race, religion, politics, patriotism, and humanism.
Elected to the National Academy of Design in 1997, Benny Andrews was awarded prestigious fellowships and exhibited widely in this country and abroad. Today, his work can be found in the collections of major American museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, Detroit Institute of Art, Studio Museum of Harlem, and many more.
Created as an illustration to a poem of the same title by Langston Hughes, Walkers with the Dawn is a visual expression of the poet and artist’s shared hope for a new era of equality and opportunity for African Americans: “Being walkers with the dawn and morning/Walkers with the sun and morning/We are not afraid of night/Nor days of gloom/Nor darkness/ Being walkers with the sun and morning.” The two colorfully clad figures—leaning backwards and physically open to possibility—appear to have abandoned themselves to a joyful moment.