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From the campus to the canvas

At first glance, through the lens of a Duke student, Jimmie Banks is nobody. He walks about in his same dark blue t-shirt, black pants and boots every day, building to building, one of thousands to don the same uniform and complete their various, often unappreciated tasks. But just like every other person to check an emergency light, vacuum a carpet or fix a faulty bulb, he is someone.

Like the many stories that preceded this one and the many that will follow, the story of the unassuming stranger will always pique our interest. I’m not telling you to open up to Jimmie more so than you should any other stranger; I’m telling you to believe that Jimmie Banks is one-of-a-kind, but he is not uncommon. He is the one you forget as soon as you see him because your life seems to flash by so fast, class-to-class, interview-to-interview, that the strangers in it will simply remain that because you have no time to shake a hand or flash a smile. We say it’s not our fault, because such a thing seems to lack a fault-riddled party. Like them, we have important places to be, and to detract from the moments in between our tasks dedicated to music or staring ahead at nothing would be a waste. But I assure you, you busy, stressed soul, your time will not be wasted. The following is from my short, but wonderful time with Mr. Jimmie Banks.

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Jimmie Banks is an African-American man in his mid-50’s; he stands about 6-foot tall with a solid gut and massive smile that he has to force himself to hide, lest his teeth come barreling out to greet you along with his sparkling brown eyes. He walks around Duke’s campus slowly, never rushing, not because he lacks a sense of urgency, but because he is always on time—that’s just who he is. Everything about Jimmie makes you comfortable, both in mentality and in your assumption that he is a man who does his job and not too much else. Of course, you, me and everyone else to ever think that about him—or anyone else—are all very, very wrong.

Banks was born and raised in Richmond, Va. as one of seven children by his loving mother and father, and as a result, work came early and often for young Jimmie—at 14, he began cutting lawns for the elderly. But this isn’t a story about a man who mowed lawns. This is about a “lone wolf”, a boy who knew the love of a paintbrush sooner than that of a baseball bat. Jimmie Banks, while many things—a father, grandfather, electrician, etc.—is an artist. It’s not a hobby that came late in life or developed slowly as he matured; rather than play outside or buy toys, Jimmie created masterpieces and built his own playthings as soon as he could walk.

“I was kind of the lone wolf of the drawers growing up,” Banks said. “It was pretty fun. Everyone would be outside playing and I’m inside drawing. I was very creative. I took plastic, like from dry cleaners, and made parachutes out of them, with some string, and put little men on it. I made little model cars out of cereal boxes. They rolled, the doors open. I melted wax and molded people out of wax…. I’ve drawn for most of my life, since I was little. Third grade, I won a lot of blue ribbons, did a lot of portraits of friends and family. I just love to capture people and capture life.”

This kind of creativity, while unique among his peers, didn’t come about randomly. Banks points to his father as his talent source, as he says that in his younger days, the elder Banks was also taken in by the art of drawing. But fathering seven kids would force him away from the canvas and toward the workforce, where he would spend the majority of his time when not raising his children.

Jimmie, on the other hand, couldn’t stop. As long as he could, Banks drew, and as his classmates and family noticed, the kid was pretty good. As a matter of fact, if you ask Jimmie today what his favorite piece is, it takes him no time to reach into his massive collection and pluck out a massive wonder—his interpretation of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous “Last Supper”. The only difference is that Jimmie drew and painted his when he was in the sixth grade—in one week.

“I did this around the sixth grade—an oil painting of The Last Supper,” he said. “I did this in one week; that was a long week. You see, I love the old masters. I love how they capture the clothing, and the way the clothing droops. All those colors just pop out; I like the shadows. And it’s even a little bit more detail than this since this is a print.”

Success is not determined by one’s fame nor does one’s fame reflect their talent; if that was the case, Jimmie’s art would sell for millions today and someone besides myself would be writing this for some haughty magazine.

But life doesn’t deal the deserving everything they are owed, and instead of following some Billy Elliot-esque dream path to the upper echelon of the art society, Jimmie’s road to fame presumably ended in Richmond, where his time was required in the workforce and not the art studio. Of course, being the kind-hearted soul he is, Banks isn’t bitter, rather he is understanding.

“They had an art department at school. I was top dog, for sure,” Banks said. “If you had the money to go to college or had a scholarship, that would be the option, to go. But I came up with a big family, so at the time, you just try to work and get through and give back.”

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Jimmie’s path, obviously, didn’t end in Virginia.

After working for a few years in the northeastern North Carolina town of Rocky Mount breaking down mobile homes and cooking at a local restaurant, he decided to re-apply himself and get into the electrician business. No, it wasn’t art, but it presented him with the opportunity to tinker in the same way that 10-year old Jimmie did, only this time, he could both get paid and pick up a new skill.

And eventually, after bouncing around between several electric companies and travelling all about for his various jobs, his path landed him in Durham after a stint with Tech Electric, which is based out of Morrisville, N.C. The company had him working on Duke’s campus and led to him nabbing an opening in Duke’s electrical shop. After a long journey, he has settled in Raleigh, where he has lived for 20-something years.

“I like being in one place better than living out of a suitcase,” Banks said. “It was fun seeing different places and different people—from Maine to Florida to Charlotte to Boston to a place that makes all different kind of china to paper mills to sheet rock mills and so on. It was quite the experience.”

Now, at this point, one is probably wondering just how this story of a has-been artist-turned electrician has much of anything to do with our present-day situation. Well, you see, while Banks was out and about taking up a new trade, starting a family and finding a stable job at Duke, he was drawing—a lot.

Unlike his father, Jimmie never let the art die.

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In the middle of the Bryan Center, Jimmie has spread his art out among the benches by main staircase on the second floor. Dozens of pieces, all different sizes, some prints, some originals, all for my viewing pleasure. They range in subject from the iconic yellow-eyed “Thriller” Michael Jackson to self portraits to living-room paint collages; it's Jimmie's lifework, capturing his various interests over the years, a portfolio larger and more sophisticated than one would imagine from a soft-spoken man nearing the end of his career as an electrician. But there they are, and for a few moments, I stand speechless. Jimmie has seen the look before, as he breaks out in a big smile and starts walking me through all his different works.

As he goes on to tell me, he’s been drawing ever since those fateful Rocky Mount days, rarely taking a night off from his work, and the hard work has paid off handily—people, much like they did in Richmond, have taken note of the man’s talent.

“I did a couple shows at Duke—about three times. That’s when I really got noticed,” Banks said. “A couple professors noticed my art, so I did some shows. I got commissioned to do a Reginaldo Howard portrait. He died in the 60s and they named a scholarship after him. I met his sister from Atlanta, and they unveiled it and hung it in the John Hope Franklin Center for over two years, and now it’s permanently displayed in an African-American studies classroom [in] the Friedl building.”

His art has been displayed in shows held at the Mary Lou Williams Center, West Union and Bryan Center’s Multicultural Center. But Banks’ art is not just for him to show off. As he draws daily, he’s accumulated so many pieces that there come times when he has to part with his works, though, as you should expect by this point, he does so with others in mind, donating his pieces to various local school fundraisers throughout the years.

He draws inspiration from just about everywhere—occasional visits to the North Carolina Museum of Art, the old masters—think Leonardo da Vinci—local artists, Simmie Knox (a personal favorite of Jimmie’s who he often studies) and apartment neighbors.

But even Jimmie, the man who never stopped smiling during our sitdown in the BC, has trying moments, moments that tear him down, that send him spiralling. Even when he talks to me about them, he never breaks his smile; his eyes never stop sparkling. But you can see that it’s these moments that could have extinguished his artistic flame. Instead, they fueled him.

As things fell from his life, the constants—his son, his two darling grandchildren, ages three and six, his job and naturally, his art—are what have pushed him forward.

“Sometimes things come up that affect your life—something that brings you down or something that brings you up—and it just turns your whole art around. It’ll inspire you to put out more or do more or just grow and get more creative,” Banks said. “Me and my wife separated, about three years ago. Sometimes, it’s just life…. I lost my mom from colon cancer [about seven years ago]. She always talked about me and doing my art, and so I said, ‘I ain’t got no time to waste time, so I’ve got to make all my time count and draw as much as I can and grow as much as I can.’”

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As Jimmie shuffles away his art, I posit the question of how, if at all, the Internet has changed his perspective or output. He pulls out his phone and starts to poke through his apps before landing upon Instagram, and, well, he amazes me again.

For as long as he’s been drawing, Jimmie has loved to draw up celebrities. His print collection shows this off fairly well, but if you are one of the privileged folks to be allowed to follow him on his private Instagram, you know his affinity better than anyone.

“I love the movies. Some of the old classic movies, I like doing portraits of that and just capturing that,” Banks said. “And I love music. My brother used to have all types of albums. Tons of albums. So I love music and a lot of the time I’ll do some of the singers.”

Enter Flipagram.

Flipagram is a program that allows you to animate a series of pictures—more or less, to take the bouncing ball you’d draw on the corner of your mom’s entire packet of sticky notes, add music and put it online. And with that, Jimmie’s art flame was once again doused in kerosene.

“When I was little, I used to draw flip books, make little movies, draw someone diving off the board, fighting and a lot of stuff,” Banks said. “I’ve always looked for something like that come out, and when that came out, I was like, ‘Wow. This is it.’ I’ve been able to so much with it.”

The Internet and introduction of digital art now allows Jimmie the audience he was never afforded outside of the Richmond and Duke communities. Rather than being known simply as a local artist, he has established a bit of a following, and though his numbers may not boast the weight of some other major artists, it doesn’t mean people haven’t taken notice.

Celebrities have long enjoyed Jimmie’s work—back in 1990, before the Internet was a thing, Jimmie received a handwritten thank-you note from Oprah Winfrey for a portrait he mailed her. Nowadays they show their appreciation by saving his work to their personal Instagrams. Although some stem from fan-run accounts as I suspected, others are very much real and have loved the work the Richmond native has put together, both in stills and self-made music videos.

“The internet just opened up the whole world,” he said. “I had people from all over the world follow me on Instagram, Yessy and several other pages. Instagram, it’s just all over the world. Different artists, different celebrities. Diana Ross, Drake, Pittbull, Rihanna, Janet Jackson. Then some of them save the art to their pages. And Diana Ross gave me a shout out last night.”

Diana Ross shout-outs included, the future of Jimmie Banks’ art is bright, and will likely only ramp up as he nears retirement. He’s currently wrapping up a wall-sized portrait to be on display in the Arts Annex and is gearing up for his fourth art show at Duke, though this time he’s hoping he can be placed in Duke’s highest art home: the Nasher.

“[The Arts Annex portrait is] of Fame, with Debbie Allen. Remember the series, with Janet Jackson? That’ll be up in the Arts Annex,” Banks said. “Probably in the next couple years I’ll probably try to work on a big show. I’ll get some big cloth, tape it to my wall and do some big, gigantic stuff. And so later on I can do a show with that, maybe at the Nasher…. [I’ll be at Duke] for probably the next seven-eight years. Then I’ll retire and really pursue my art.”

As he packed up the rest of his art and prepared to end his lunch break, I shook his hand and left him with one question: Will Jimmie Banks ever stop drawing?

“No,” he said. “Never ever, ever, ever.”

Good.

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