By now, the cotton fields of Huellar Banks' childhood home in rural Mississippi are probably concrete, the ramshackle cabins replaced by new houses rebuilt to code.
But none of that landscape, or those times, is lost to Banks. For 30 years, the 67-year-old East Palo Alto resident has sat down at her kitchen table after a day of cleaning houses to paint what she remembers of rural Southern communal life in the '30s--picking cotton, killing hogs, loading firewood, making sorghum.
In today's sophisticated art world, with its degreed artists, commercial connections and well-known -isms, Banks' style stands out like a clapboard cabin in midtown Manhattan. She never studied art, has rarely had the opportunity to view art, and doesn't promote her work. She has been offered thousands of dollars for a single painting, but refuses to sell them. "I couldn't sell them," she said. "I'm attached to them. They are part of my life. They are my memory."
She has no technique she can point to or speak about, just a feeling for beauty. "If a beautiful mind creation comes to me, I paint it," she said. "It came from the television. Or roses. I love to paint roses."
She paints the mundane: speckled chickens pecking in a yard, pies glistening with fruit, three-layer devil's food cakes with white frosting so thick with paints she calls them "oil sculptures."
And if the mundane needs sprucing up, that's fine. "When something beautiful comes to my mind, I add that. In one painting, I added a waterfall to the thick mountain. I added that waterfall because I wanted to make it beautiful."
Through Sept. 20, all of Banks' paintings will be on display in the exhibition "Remembering: Place, Texture and Color" at the Institute for Research on Women and Gender at Stanford University.
This is the fifth local show for Banks, whose work is listed on the Artists Registry of the National American Museum of the Smithsonian Institution. She has had previous shows at the Mid-Peninsula YWCA in Palo Alto and in the "Drawing From Experience: Artists Over 50" exhibition at the Euphrat Gallery at De Anza College.
Banks spent hours as a child sitting at the kitchen table "messing with crayons." Although her mother encouraged her, she couldn't afford to buy her paints or canvases. "She told me when I started making my own money, I could buy oil paints," recalled Banks. At 15, Banks went to work cleaning houses, and promptly bought oil paint and brushes.
A few years later, she caught a Greyhound bus to Memphis, married and had two children. She came to California in 1963. She remains remarkably discreet about her husband, or, more accurately, husbands. "Oh, I've had more than one husband," she said, laughing and waving her hand before closing the topic for all time.
She still works exclusively in oil--"because that's the paint my mother told me to use"--and still paints at the kitchen table. Even the size of her canvases, three feet by four feet, is dictated by the dimensions of the kitchen table and her penchant for accumulating "stuff."
"I collect things," she admits. "I collect everything."
If she had more space, she might paint bigger pieces. Or she might not. "Somehow I like that size," she said of the three-by-four-foot canvases.
As for her lack of a studio, "you make do," she said. "Think what I would have missed if I had waited for a studio."
Driven to paint and obliged to work during the day, she has been known to work herself to the point of endangering her health. After stumbling over a vacuum cleaner and injuring her leg recently, she could no longer sit up all night painting. "After that, staying up all night was hard," she said.
Did she stop altogether? "No," she admits.
It would be like asking her to stop cherishing her mother, or honoring her past. "I am reliving my past," she said. "I think about it so much, I have to paint it."
--Diane Sussman "Remembering: Place, Texture and Color," an exhibition of the complete works of Huellar Banks, shows through Sept. 20 at the Institute for Research on Women and Gender, Serra House, Stanford University. Hours are Mon.-Fri. from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
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