Walking through the John Bankston exhibit at the Coulter Art Gallery is like a scene from Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland,” with whimsical creatures and vibrant colors taking observers on a tour of an artist’s mind.
Bankston is the University’s 2021-22 Virginia & Benjamin Holt Visiting Artist, hosted by the Department of Art & Art History, a program that invites an artist who is active in the contemporary art world to showcase their art practice through different mediums. While at Stanford, Bankston is teaching a painting course, in addition to presenting his art.
When looking back at his childhood in Benton Harbor, Michigan, Bankston cannot remember a time when he was not creating. He spent his summers in art classes, filling endless pages of his sketchbook with visual representations of his dreams. Nonetheless, he never viewed painting as a sustainable career and deemed his fondness for art a trivial hobby, convincing himself he would one day become a doctor.
“I knew that there were artists, but I never knew that there were people for whom art was their actual profession,” Bankston said. “I always thought you made stuff on the side, and that was it.”
Following the science-oriented path he had laid out for himself, Bankston began studying biology at the University of Chicago in 1981. However, realizing that his passion for art had not subsided, he decided to enroll in renowned artist Vera Clement’s studio art class and found solace in her work. Despite Clement’s strict demeanor, Bankston says that her success as an artist 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 earned his Master of Fine Arts from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He has developed a style of art characterized by storytelling and an abstract, coloring book-esque painting style.
“When I first started painting, I was really interested in abstraction and these organic shapes that floated on the ground and sort of went in and out of space,” Bankston said. “Then over time, the paintings became more figurative, but I’ve always been interested in the narrative potential of the act of painting.”
For Bankston, the cast of fantastical characters he paints represent a sense of freedom absent in real life. When he picks up his paintbrush, he says that he is able to step into the world he has created: one brimming with color and eccentricity, devoid of any societal expectations and judgement. Bankston does not have a rigorous process for selecting his characters — they simply appear in front of him and rarely carry any deeper meaning.
“When I have tried to sort of think about what they represent, the characters seem to slip away from 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 has not been free of its trials and tribulations, however. As a Black artist, Bankston says that he often finds himself at a crossroads between trying to reach a universal audience while still providing a sense of cultural specificity of the Black experience in America. Additionally, Bankston explains that his profession as a painter is an inherently isolating one — he often spends days on end in his studio without any human interaction.
Through pioneering his Stanford course, ARTSTUDI 145A: “Painting as Storytelling,” Bankston hopes to inspire and support young artists. In the class, he works to teach students how to visualize their dreams and use various creative techniques.
“I think art offers a shared vocabulary that people can rely on to tell their stories, a vocabulary that is malleable, open-ended and therefore inviting,” said Events and Communications Manager for the Department of Art and Art History Yuri Hobart on Bankston’s work. “The abstract nature of storytelling through art also allows artists to tell their stories while maintaining some level of ambiguity, which may in turn create a safe space to tell deeply personal stories, and for viewers to discover their own.”
When he’s not teaching, Bankston spends most of his time in the Coulter Art Gallery, which he describes as a fishbowl because of its glass walls, working on his largest work yet: two eight-by-twelve foot panels of raw, unstretched canvas. Though the feeling of painting in public is foreign to him, Bankston’s artistic process remains the same, as he enters his own world and can forget about the curious eyes gazing at his work. Students are already enjoying perusing his art.
“It’s such a unique opportunity to have viewing access to an artist’s dynamic work in progress, rather than just their finished product. I look forward to returning to Bankston’s gallery throughout the quarter to see his work at various stages of the creative process, expanding my grasp on his methods and messages,” said Annika Penzer ’25 after walking through the gallery exhibition.
Although Bankston does not yet have any concrete plans for after Stanford, he hopes to serve as the guiding force in his students’ creative pilgrimage to becoming better artists and storytellers.
“I’m going to take it day by day,” Bankston said. “I’m hoping that through my time at Stanford, I will also become a better visual thinker.”