Charles Buchanan (b. 1958) is a self-taught painter and pastel artist. He moves freely between realistic representation and geometric abstraction. Through both modes, he favors vivid, electric colors. “My imagination colors are always bright!” he says. Buchanan’s work is generally intuitive and unplanned. He explains, “I know my work will come out best when I’m not putting too much thought into it.”
A lifelong resident of Chicago’s southeast side, Buchanan showed early artistic promise. At six years old, he started drawing figures, and a few years later fixated on copying faces from photographs, trying to capture a realistic likeness. He recalls promos for youth classes at SAIC on the back of “TV Guide”. He applied and was accepted, but the price lay beyond the family’s means. Though he remained untutored, young Charles won recognition, even painting 10 foot tall skeleton and pirate mascots in the gymnasium of South Shore High School.
Upon graduating, painting became a way to make a buck on the side. “Every piece I’ve done in the past has sold,” Buchanan said. But his art (mostly portraits on request) needed to fit into the cracks of a demanding work life. Buchanan was a liquor store stock boy, a machinist at a box factory, a salesman of hair products at the Maxwell Street Market, a furniture refinisher, and a carpenter for damaged buildings. “My God, I’ve done so much lifting,” he reflects.
Art took on greater prominence for Buchanan during a dark period in his life, a decade spent behind bars starting in 1993. “Life in the pen made me focus,” he says, and his cell at Danville Correctional Center became a studio. Other inmates asked for portraits; they’d pose for Buchanan and he’d crop out the uniform or hide it beneath flowers. He also specialized in ornate greeting cards that prisoners would send to their families and sweethearts. He recalls, “Everything that I put together was special - there was never a duplicate.” He’d sell the cards for two packs of Ramen Noodles each. “I sold more cards than the commissary!”
In prison, Buchanan developed a signature that he still uses - “Charles” with a flower rising from the side, a tear-drop falling from it. It’s a tribute to his daughter, Lafleur, who was born with a brain tumor, dying at the age of six. “Pain follows me… but I’ve grown adapted to it,” he says. He remembers how pain was the common denominator in jail: “In the penitentiary, it wasn’t about the years we spent but the pain we shared.”
Buchanan expresses hope in this moment, many years removed from incarceration and no longer bound to punishing work. He feels that his artwork finally has the space and time to flourish. “Art is a tool for my recovery,” he says. “I’m a survivor. I’m still here by the grace of God, and he’s given me a trail to follow.”
Buchanan currently lives in Englewood with his girlfriend, and keeps close with a son, daughter, and beloved granddaughter.