In 1973, if you’d asked 15-year-old Andrea Rushing if he’d rather meet Salvador Dalí or Michael Jackson, he would have picked Salvador Dalí.
“I was probably the only black boy in the South whose hero was a Spanish painter,” says the now-56-year-old San Diego artist.
Rushing’s voice has a mellow quality, and he often says, “cool, cool” (always twice). This morning, we’re standing in the wide front room of the Andrea Rushing Academy in Normal Heights. The 20-foot-high walls are covered floor to ceiling in paintings, mostly his, though some were done by his students. Rushing describes himself as “an open-ended allegorist,” and his work includes images of a woman with hair of fire, a tattooed angel with copper-wire wings rooted to the ground by vines of ivy, a man with the head of a tiger. The figures are black, white, Asian, human, animal, angel.
Rushing takes a few minutes away from his Saturday-morning class to talk with me while four students quietly work at easels lining a wide path from the front door to the back of the room. Elton John and Kiki Dee sing “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” on a radio set to a low volume.
“I have a very positive story, raised in a nice neighborhood, nice parents, parents still together, you know,” Rushing says, fast-forwarding through his childhood and family life with a quick, no-frills description.
But his career choice was one point of contention with his parents. He was raised during a time when “a black man should consider himself lucky to find a job. And for me to say to my parents, ‘I want to be an artist....’ They said, ‘Are you kidding me?’”
Rushing pushed through parental resistance only to be met by more preconceptions about what he, as a black man, ought to be doing. He chafed when a couple of older black artists told him that he should only paint black people. To them, he says, “It was almost a foregone conclusion that that’s what I should be doing.”
They’re not alone. The idea that black artists have the responsibility to use their art to uplift the race is one that’s been a part of a larger discussion for decades. Minister Conrad Muhammad, founder of the hip-hop political organization Movement for Change, said at a black arts festival at Harvard in 1999, “Where our community is concerned, artists were the first images that the mainstream of the country saw, and so an ethos developed that you have to make your people proud.”
Harry Belafonte offered a more poetic explanation in a 2012 article he wrote for The Daily Beast. “The songs and tales of heroism and dignity handed down to us from our truth tellers guide us in our continuing pursuit of the American Dream.”
An old man with deep brown skin walks in the swinging glass door that opens up to Adams Avenue. He wears a beanie and a graphic T-shirt bearing drawings of four record players. My best guess puts him at 70 years old.
“What’s up, class?” he calls.
At that moment, one of Rushing’s students calls him away. He excuses himself.
The old man looks around for a few beats and then lands his eyes on me.
“How you doing?” he asks with an upward nod of his chin.
I answer and repeat the question. He bellows, “Fantastic!” and heads toward me. “I’m just in the neighborhood, thought I’d pass through and come get on his nerves a little bit.” He gestures again with his chin, this time in Rushing’s direction.
He introduces himself to me as Kenneth and explains that he knows Rushing “from around the neighborhood” and that he stops by sometimes to “shoot the breeze.” When our conversation stalls, he steps up to a painting propped on an easel next to us and leans his face in close.
“This is an awesome painting,” he says. “You know he did this, right?”
It’s a painting of a crowd of people standing in a golden, dusky light. I nod and ask Kenneth what he likes about it.
“Well, let me ask you,” he responds, “Do you recognize the people in there?”
Sure, I do. There’s Malcolm X, Billie Holiday, Angela Davis, Harriet Tubman, Paul Robeson, W.E. B. DuBois. After every name I call out, Kenneth says, “There you go.” And when I tire of proving my familiarity with the celebrities of black history, he says, “Yeah, see, there you go. That’s why I like it. He did this. And they look like the people. That’s what I dig about it. I’ve seen a lot of black art, but not quite like this. He got everybody in there. And he’s still trying to think up more people to put in there. He just squeezed Malcolm X in there. He wasn’t in there before. Every time I come in, there’s a new face. But he’s crazy-good.”
He begins to point around the room at paintings on the walls.
“He did that one and that one. He did that one, and he did that one,” he says. “And see that picture of me?”
Kenneth points across the room to a painting of a man in moss-and-mustard-colored robes sitting on an ornate throne of gold. Indeed, the man has Kenneth’s face and a more groomed version of his salt-and-pepper chin hair.
“That’s you?” I ask.
“Yeah, that’s me!” he says.
The image is one of a series of paintings Rushing began a couple of years ago. He calls the series Black Royalty, based on the 800-year-long Moorish rule of Spain. He hopes these images will expand those “tales of heroism and dignity” beyond civil rights and slavery. To not paint black people at all, he says, would be just as much of a problem as having to only paint them.
Back in 2002, when Rushing opened his gallery in North Park, he returned the final “A” that he’d dropped from his given name in junior high school. He liked the idea of the conversation he imagined would take place.