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.
“She’s a he. And he’s a black man.”
This desire to surprise might stem from frustration with how often he’s identified as a black man first, artist second. He gives me several examples. He asked a reporter, “If she could leave race out if it.” Instead, she led with “African American artist Andre Rushing.” A publishing company that was doing a traveling exhibition of his work created a poster for the exhibit. Above an image of his face, the poster read, “‘California Ebony Artist,’ which is ridiculous,” he says.
Rushing won’t describe himself as subversive or say that he’s particularly driven to defy expectations. Stubborn, he says, is a better term.
He joins Kenneth and me now where we still stand in front of the painting of the crowd. The radio plays John Mellencamp’s “Hurts So Good.”
“This is going to be for UCSD,” Rushing says, reminding me of the mural he mentioned recently that the university’s Black Student Union has commissioned him to paint. Although this version on the easel is only 35-by-40 inches. Rushing estimates that the mural will be 40-feet-by-17-feet.
“I think these people are going to be slightly larger than life, so it oughta be cool,” he says. “This is the final mockup. I’m still putting people in, taking people out. I’ve got about a month before I actually start it.”
“You still gonna put my picture in there?” Kenneth asks.
“Oh, yeah,” Rushing says, turning to the painting of Kenneth on the throne. “You see I did that of him.”
“He showed me,” I say.
“Oh, yeah, I’m sure he’s given you the Kenneth tour,” Rushing laughs. “I have no doubt about it.”
“You know I did!” Kenneth says.
Just then, a woman hurries in the door toward Rushing, hands him a wad of bills, and says, “There’s one package. The human one will be in in a second.”
Then she hurries back out, waving goodbye. “I’ll see you later,” she calls.
Kenneth takes the opportunity to head out, calling out a loud goodbye to everyone.
Moments later, a boy with a small, tidy afro walks in carrying a backpack on his back.
“Hey, man,” Rushing says. He walks the boy, whom he calls Q, over to a stack of books in a back corner of the room and begins pulling out books, instructing Q to look for an image to paint, preferably a simple one of a person or a scene without too much minutiae. “Why don’t you get yourself set up, and I’ll be over in a minute.”
In the meantime, Rushing heads over to a man named Ed, who paints a picture of purple-and-gray mountains. Ed, like the other four students who were here before the young man arrived, is white and over 50 years of age.
“How you doing, Ed?”
“Good, getting ready for that silly client,” Ed says.
Rushing explains, “At a certain point for my students, I become ‘the client.’ And the thing about the client is that he doesn’t know anything about art. He just knows what he wants. That tends to be the clients I work with.”
I gingerly approach the boy with the tidy afro, who seems to be in his own world. He’s flipping the pages of America 24/7, a book of photography. I ask him how long he’s been working with Rushing and whether he likes Rushing’s work. To the first, he responds quietly, “A few months,” and to the second, he merely nods. Not once does he look up from the book. And when I venture to ask his age, he nearly whispers, “Fourteen,” quite possibly with a hint of disdain, as if he knows that were it not for the fuzz on his upper lip, I’d guess 11.
After his brief consultation with Ed and his mountains, Rushing returns to Q and asks if he’s found any images he’d like to paint. Q shows him a photo of an old white woman in an old-fashioned dress standing among the debris left after a severe storm and fingering the keys of a piano.
“Yeah, that’s a great one,” Rushing says. “I like that one a lot.”
Rushing turns to me with his eyebrows up and says, “See that? Now, what if I were to say to Q, ‘No, it has to be a black person?’ That would be a shame.”
In the end, Q chooses a photograph of a nine-year-old Mexican girl in a First Communion dress, holding her one-year-old baby sister. Rushing tears it out of the coffee-table book and helps Q choose his paints from a pile of half-squeezed tubes on a nearby table.
Rushing says he almost always paints from images, usually photographs he’s taken himself. He walks me over to a painting on the back wall. A bejeweled caramel-skinned woman in a green gown and an old-timey flight helmet sits on a throne. Flowers lay on the ground near her feet and the word Tuskegee has been etched into stone near the bottom of the painting.
“That’s my friend Missy,” Rushing says. “I dressed her in that outfit [and took a photo]. We didn’t have that helmet, but I found a picture of that and put it on her head, but everything else is as is. It’s a Tuskegee airmen memorial.”
He pulls another painting from the storage racks lining the back hall and puts it on an empty easel.
“Dig this,” he says.
The painting depicts, in bright colors, the biblical story of the annunciation, when the angel tells Mary she’s going to give birth to Jesus. The angel has a pixie cut, gaping plugs in her ears, and tattoos on her hand, arm, and chest. Both women are white.
“I met her at the Laundromat,” he says of Mary. And of the tattooed angel, “And I met her at the coffee shop. Those are her real tattoos, as a matter of fact.”
Rushing uses biblical imagery in much of his work but says there is nothing in particular that he wants people to think. Again, he describes himself as an “open-ended allegorist” and says, “I really just want people to think. Do I care about what they think? Not really. I just want my paintings to trigger thought.”
He doesn’t want that thought limited to race. But he says he’s up against the highly racialized perspectives of most Americans.
“I don’t want to promote white images over black images. I don’t want to be a part of that. But I also don’t want to be limited in what I can talk about,” he says. “I kind of feel that if all you can paint is black people, then all you can talk about is race. If I paint a black person in a painting, it becomes about race, even if the subject’s completely [not about race]. If I paint five racecar drivers side-by-side and one of them’s black, it becomes about race.”
In the same breath, when Rushing does projects such as his Black Royalty series and the mural for UCSD, he refuses to be limited there, either. Every black painting, he says, does not have to be centered around the Civil Rights movement.
“I told them I would not paint a civil rights mural,” he says of the UCSD project, “which is why I got the job, I’m told. I think there are enough civil rights murals. People just aren’t looking forward.”
Rushing has another current mural project at a private home in La Jolla. When I ask if there are any black people in that one, he chuckles and says, “No, it’s a Chinese landscape.”
And after a moment’s pause, he adds, “If I would have just painted African-American imagery, I’m not sure I would have survived in San Diego.”