The Hearing Eye: Jazz & Blues Influences in African American Visual Art

By Graham Lock; David Murray | Go to book overview

TWELVE
Ellen Banks: The Geometries of the Score

Interview by Graham Lock

Music is my still life, my landscape, my nude.” Ellen Banks is unique among the painters in this book in taking music as the sole subject of her art. Her approach is highly unusual too: her canvases are based not on the sound or performance of music but on musical scores (mostly piano music by everyone from Bach to Cole Porter to Mary Lou Williams), measures from which she translates into colors and geometric shapes using a personal system of correspondences that she devised in the early 1980s. Although at one time she envisioned the music on a large scale—“Bach toccatas about three feet tall and nine feet long, and fugues approximately six feet square”1—in recent years she has focused more on small canvases and encaustics.

Born in Boston in 1941,2 Banks studied both painting and music as a child (she is a classically trained pianist) until—inspired by Mondrian—she elected to concentrate on art. She studied at the Massachusetts College of Art, later worked with César Domela in Paris and Hans Jaffe at Harvard, and was a Bunting Fellow at Radcliffe in 1983–84. She has exhibited widely in Europe but remains less well known in the United States. For many years she taught at Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Art before retiring in 1996. She now lives in Brooklyn, New York, in a house stacked with the canvases to which she devotes all of her time. I talked with her there in November 2003.

GL: You were interested in painting from an early age?

EB: Oh, always. My whole life. Believe it or not, I’m very shy. [Laughs.] As a kid I was incredibly shy, skinny and shy. I thought, if I’m a painter, people will love my paintings and I don’t have to be involved with them. Which hasn’t happened—it doesn’t work like that! No, I always wanted to be an artist. Because I could do it by myself; I wouldn’t have to compromise. In life you have to com-

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