“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.”