Artist Raeghan Buchanan recently completed a massive mural covering the north-facing wall of Ava’s Taste of the Caribbean in the Hilltop, and each of the nine characters included within has a unique backstory.
Take Little Man, for one, the smallest of four players seated at a card table, whose presence is rooted in Buchanan’s experiences as a youngster. “I learned how to play Spades when I was 9 years old, and I’d always play with the adults,” the artist said in an interview outside of Ava’s in late July, where she worked alongside fellow artist Frank Lawson to put the finishing touches on the mural. “So, Little Man, he’s sitting at the parent’s table. And Frank thinks they’re letting him play, but that’s not true. He’s actually good at cards.”
But for Buchanan, the scene comes with so much more, dredging up memories of funk music being played on the family stereo while the grown-ups drank whiskey, smoked cigarettes and played cards. Afforded a degree of freedom, the kids would dart around the house, chase one another up and down the stairs, eat ice cream and watch horror movies. At some point, maybe the older kids would sneak off to listen to records and hold an impromptu dance party, or to watch movies like Boyz n the Hood, which would inevitably lead to the younger kids to cry about not being invited to join in.
“And it’s almost like that’s the story,” said Buchanan, who designed her mural as a way to celebrate the existence of the everyday folks who live and work in the city, and who tend to move through life absent any larger recognition. “Playing Spades, I think that’s a thing a lot of people can relate to culturally. And I tried to choose things that were universal, that showed you didn’t have to climb Mount Everest to have a story. Maybe you’re good at Spades, or maybe you can skateboard. I wanted to show regular people on the street doing regular activities.”
Buchanan has long embraced her art as a means of shining light onto those overlooked corners. In February, she , a comic that turned a deserved spotlight onto pioneering Black musicians whose stories, in many cases, had not been properly told.
Commissioned by the Hilltop Arts Collective, the mural – which manages to be at once intimate and outsized – draws upon the artist’s family history and then blows things up to a scale that required a bit of adaptation.
“Motions that were like this on the page were like this on the wall,” said Buchanan, who first pinched her thumb and forefinger together as though she were sketching fine details in a notepad and then swung her arm in a wide circle, mimicking the full-body movements required to bring the massive painting to life with cans of spray paint.
While the painting is enormous, its inspirations are rooted in small moments, including Buchanan’s memories of her grandfather, who used to sit on the front step and greet neighbors. (The elder served as the inspiration for the older gentleman painted on the far east side of the mural.) And then there’s the artist’s father, who helped give greater definition to the concept entwined in the painting’s DNA.
“My dad, sometimes he’ll say something that he has never said to me, or he’ll drop something into a story that I’ve never heard from him,” said Buchanan of the expanding conversations she’s shared with her dad as she’s gotten older, which helped ignite the idea that every person has a story to tell. “For example, my dad was a social worker, and he started a program where he taught foster parents how to take care of Black hair. And that was because there was an incident where these foster parents just cut off a little girl’s hair because they didn’t know how to comb it. And that, to me, was something important. But my father was never going to be like, ‘So, did you know I started a program…’”
The mural is also reflective of the communal approach that has increasingly become an important part of Buchanan's practice, and which she traced in part to a college-era discovery of collage artist Romare Bearden, with whom she shares some biographical details (both lived for a time in Pittsburgh, and both started to come into their own artistic voices approaching age 40).
In addition to his own artmaking, Bearden also cofounded Spiral, a Black artist collective whose member met weekly to discuss topics such as the role of Black artists in advancing the civil rights movement. “And that holistic approach of being an artist – where it doesn’t just stop with you – that really resonates with me,” Buchanan said.
The artist described the creation of the mural as a learning process in which she had to adapt to everything from the uneven painting surface (the imperfections of brick sometimes forced the artist to embrace the same quality in the finished work) to the outdoor elements. “I’ve never gotten a sunburn like this before,” said Buchanan, who painted two other murals prior to this one, neither of which was to this scale.
A tireless creator, Buchanan expressed a desire to continue to branch out and find new means to transmit both her own story as well as those belonging to others, whether via comic books, murals or her portrait work.
This drive is further reflected in how Buchanan has come to view the blank page, which earlier in her career might have stoked anxiety. How am I going to fill this page? And with what? And then how will I continue to do that day in and day out?
“And now it’s not a fear I won’t be able to fill the page,” she said. “It’s more like I’m going to run out of time before I can do every picture I want to do.”