Meet Holt’s guest artist John Bankston as he creates a coloring book of dreams

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Strolling through John Bankston’s exhibit at the Coulter Art Gallery is like a scene from Tim Burton’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’, with whimsical creatures and vibrant colors taking viewers on a mind-blowing tour. ‘an artist.

Bankston is the University’s 2021-2022 Visiting Artist Virginia & Benjamin Holt, hosted by the Department of Art and Art History, a program that invites an artist active in the contemporary art world to present his artistic practice through different mediums. At Stanford, Bankston teaches a painting class, in addition to showcasing his art.

Thinking back to his childhood in Benton Harbor, Michigan, Bankston can’t remember a time when he wasn’t creating. He spent his summers taking art classes, filling endless pages of his sketchbook with visual representations of his dreams. Nonetheless, he never viewed painting as a lasting career and viewed his penchant for art as a trivial hobby, persuading himself that he would one day become a doctor.

“I knew there were artists, but I never knew there were people for whom art was their true profession,” Bankston said. “I always thought you were doing side things, and that’s it.”

Following his scientific path, Bankston began studying biology at the University of Chicago in 1981. However, realizing that his passion for art had not abated, he decided to move on. enroll in the studio art class of famous artist Vera Clement and find solace in her work. Despite Clement’s strict demeanor, Bankston says his success as an artist has allowed him to see his own potential as a professional painter. After graduating from the University of Chicago in 1985, Bankston decided to move to San Francisco and pursue art under the guidance of the San Francisco Art Institute. In 1990, Bankston received his Masters of Fine Arts from the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. He developed an art style characterized by storytelling and an abstract and coloring painting style.

“When I first started painting I was really interested in abstraction and these organic shapes that floated on the ground and kind of went in and out of space,” Bankston said. “Then over time the paintings got more figurative, but I’ve always been interested in the narrative potential of the act of painting.”

For Bankston, the cast of fantastic figures he paints represents a sense of freedom absent from real life. When he picks up his brush, he says he is able to step into the world he has created: a world brimming with color and eccentricity, devoid of all societal expectations and judgment. Bankston doesn’t have a rigorous process for selecting his characters – they simply appear in front of him and rarely have a deeper meaning.

“When I tried to sort of think of what they represent, the characters seem to escape me,” Bankston said. “It’s like a dream, I think. Now I just let them come to me without trying to figure out what they mean.

Bankston’s journey as an artist was not, however, free from trials and tribulations. As a black artist, Bankston says he often finds himself at a crossroads between trying to reach a universal audience while still providing a sense of culturally specificity to the black experience in America. Additionally, Bankston explains that his profession as a painter is inherently isolating – he often spends entire days in his studio without any human interaction.

By creating his Stanford course, ARTSTUDI 145A: “Painting as Storytelling”, Bankston hopes to inspire and support young artists. In the classroom, he works to teach students how to visualize their dreams and use various creative techniques.

The works of students in the “Painting as Narration” class are exhibited in the Coulter Art Gallery throughout the neighborhood. (Photo: ALEXANDRA TORRES ARSUAGA / The Stanford Daily)

“I think art offers a shared vocabulary that people can draw upon when telling their stories, a vocabulary that is malleable, open and therefore inviting,” said Yuri Hobart, head of events and communications for the department. art and art history, about the work of Bankston. . “The abstract nature of storytelling through art also allows artists to tell their stories while maintaining a certain level of ambiguity, which in turn can create a safe space for telling deeply personal stories and for them to tell. viewers discover theirs. ”

When not teaching, Bankston spends most of his time in the Coulter Art Gallery, which he describes as a fishbowl due to its glass walls, working on his largest work to date: two eight by twelve foot unstretched raw canvas panels. Although the feeling of painting in public is alien to him, Bankston’s artistic process remains the same as he enters his own world and can forget about the curious eyes watching his work. Students already like to browse his art.

“This is a unique opportunity to have access to the dynamic work in progress of an artist, rather than his finished product. I look forward to returning to Bankston’s gallery throughout the term to see her work at different stages of the creative process, thus broadening my understanding of her methods and messages, ”Annika Penzer ’25 said after browsing the exhibition of the gallery.

Although Bankston does not yet have concrete plans for post Stanford, he hopes to serve as a guiding force in his students’ creative pilgrimage to become better artists and storytellers.

“I’m going to take it day to day,” Bankston said. “I hope that during my time at Stanford, I will also become a better visual thinker.”


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