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‘It’s like breathing’: Duke electrician Jimmie Banks reflects on his passion for art

Jimmie Banks is a Duke Facilities Management electrician of 22 years who moonlights as an artist.
Jimmie Banks is a Duke Facilities Management electrician of 22 years who moonlights as an artist.

Fittingly enough for a modern-day Renaissance man, Jimmie Banks lists Leonardo da Vinci among his chief artistic heroes. In addition to being an exhibiting artist at the Rubenstein Arts Center, Banks is a Duke Facilities Management electrician of 22 years, a former head cook of a barbecue restaurant, a breakdancer and a friend to everyone he meets along the way. 

“Jimmie Banks Retrospective,” Banks’ exhibit that was displayed at the Ruby from July 11 to Sept. 1, showed portraits of family members, former Duke athletes and celebrities he admires. According to Banks, his “biggest inspirations” are the people around him.

“I like to capture the essence of a person,” Banks said. “I like to look deep within, and just pull it out. People are the hardest thing to draw, and that’s the most fun thing for me to create. It’s very challenging, but I love it.”

These days, Banks enjoys recognition as an artist from exposures such as his retrospective at the Ruby, but his abilities stem from humble roots. Entirely self-taught, Banks began his art career as a child in Richmond, Va., instinctively feeling called to draw his neighbors, his seven siblings, the sky — anything he saw. Noticing her son’s burgeoning passion, Banks’ mother purchased a paint-by-numbers oil painting set for him when he was 10. Within a year, he turned that gift into a recreation of Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.” That same painting hung in his exhibit this summer. 

“It’s still my favorite piece I’ve ever created,” Banks said. 

Though Banks’ schedule involves working 40 hours a week at Duke, a part-time security job in Raleigh and being a father to two sons, he makes sure he prioritizes his art, creating five to 10 drawings a day. 

“It’s like breathing — I’ve got to draw,” Banks said. “Finding time can be tough, but I make sure I’m doing things I love. I cook, I spend time with my family — I love those things. I love doing electrical work, too. Doing construction, you see a lot of creativity in that. I love fixing things, making things work and working with my hands. It’s all just so fueled by passion.”

Before he had professional art opportunities, Banks would draw at restaurants and during lunch breaks — whenever he had down time, he drew. Eventually, people took notice, and co-workers sought portraits of family members and fellow restaurant customers paid for his meals in exchange for his art. 

“One time someone gave me a bag of apples [for a portrait],” Banks said. “I try to accommodate whatever someone’s willing to give. It’s never been about the money for me.” 

His effort was eventually noticed by student leaders at the Mary Lou Williams Center, who reached out to Banks in 2006 for his first official commissioned piece. Over the course of a single day, Banks created a portrait of the late Reginaldo “Reggie” Howard, the first African American president of Duke Student Government and namesake for the Reginaldo Howard Memorial Scholars program. The portrait now hangs on the second floor of the Friedl Building. 

By working at Duke, Banks said, he has “met people from all over the world — a lot of talented people. When they’re in awe of my work, or they show enthusiasm, it just makes [me] want to draw more.” 

Since the opening of “Jimmie Banks Retrospective,” which was part of the Durham 150 celebration honoring the city’s 150th anniversary of incorporation, Banks has received commissions from members of the local community and love from those who supported him beforehand. 

“I keep in touch with most of the people [whom I’ve done portraits of],” Banks said. “Some of the basketball players I’ve done who come back to campus, they’ll see me and say, ‘What’s up, Jimmie? You still doing your art?’”

Currently, Banks is working on illustrations for a children’s book, an opportunity he was offered after the author of the book visited his exhibit at the Ruby.

“My schedule can get kind of tough with doing these projects, but life is so short,” Banks said. “I try to make the most out of my days, get everything I can out of them — sometimes losing a little sleep to get [things] done.” 

According to Banks, he plans on maintaining his myriad passions “as long as [he has his] health,” staying on with Duke Facilities Management until he retires, working towards having an exhibit at the Nasher Museum and even opening a restaurant somewhere along the line. 

“Ultimately, I want to be known as someone who enjoys life,” Banks said. “[At Duke], I always see busy people. You have to take time for yourself, for your passions. I tell students, ‘Do what you really love.’ It keeps you looking younger. Keeps you happier, too.” 

Jimmie Banks’ art can be found on his Instagram page, instagram.com/jimmieart4u, or on Facebook as “Jimmie Banks art.”

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