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Artist Combines Two Loves: Color and Music

Sherman Gallery presents Ellen Banks—Musical Manifestations

Ellen Banks grew up loving both art and music. “For many years, I played the piano in the morning and painted in the afternoon, or I painted in the morning and played in the afternoon,” Banks recalls. “Sometimes I listened, sometimes I painted—always the dual needs.”

Eventually, the visual arts won. A self-described “person of extremes,” Banks says she realized that unless she could practice four hours a day, she didn’t want to keep up the piano. “The joy of painting seduced me…the scent of drying paint and wooden stretchers, the creation of color and marks,” she says.

A visit to the Sherman Gallery’s current show, Ellen Banks—Musical Manifestations: Compositions in Wax, Paper, and Yarn, on view through Sunday, October 30, makes clear that while Banks left the pursuit of music behind, music remains her muse.

Banks kept her piano, and along with it, all the scores she had amassed over the years. “I was intrigued by the written scores and often, before playing, I would look and enjoy, exhilarated by the spacing, symbol relationships, patterns of light and dark—the magic they contained.”

Those scores form the foundation for what the artist describes as her “music paintings.” For the past 30 years, the Brooklyn-based Banks has translated written scores into patterns of color. “The music that I love now inspires the art that I love and serve. They meet on the grid,” she says. “The color patterns are supported by the grid, which represents the lines and space of the score.”

Artist Ellen Banks, Ellen Banks-Musical Manifestations: Compositions in Wax, Paper, and Yarn

Banks (above) transcribes the formal elements of sheet music into textured artworks, using yarn, wax, and paper. The abstract paintings bear nebulous titles like Scherzo in E, Capriccio in A, or Bagatelle in E, so the viewer remains unaware of the specific piece of music that inspired the work. In an essay for the show’s catalogue, exhibition curator Kenneth Hartvigsen (GRS’13), the Jan and Warren Adelson Fellow in American Art in the College of Arts & Sciences history of art and architecture department, writes that “often, by the time the paintings are finished, Banks has discarded the songs that provided inspiration, choosing instead for the works to stand on their own.” Hartvigsen notes that it’s as though the paintings “have become their own selves, transformed into new bodies, and deserve new names.”

Banks describes herself as a “representational painter of abstract forms,” and looking at her work, an immediate connection between the images on the gallery’s walls and conventional music scores is hard to discern. She isn’t concerned with actual songs and sounds, she says, but with the notations, the signs for sound that she then transforms into abstractions. Her bold geometric patterns—circles, squares, and oblongs—depict musical notation. Hartvigsen points to her “fascination with the abstract balance that underlies all communication. Words, visual signs, even written languages, are constructed from random repeating forms in her work.”

Banks’ art, particularly her paintings on paper, are saturated with color—blues, greens, purples, and yellows. She assigns each color to one of the seven major keys—e.g., red represents “A major,” orange “B,” and yellow “C.” And, says Hartvigsen, there is a playfulness to her work. He refers to her “love of improvisation,” and the way she “riffs” in paint, wax, and yarn. “She experiments with materials, forms, and colors,” he says, “allowing the different media to emphasize or facilitate visual improvisation.”

Ellen Banks-Musical Manifestations: Compositions in Wax, Paper, and Yarn, Boston University Sherman Gallery

For Banks, the connection between music and art was inevitable. “Having been exposed to the structure of music and the elegance of its discipline, I couldn’t just listen to music and paint my impressions and reactions. I had to find a definite connection between my two loves.”

Ellen Banks—Musical Manifestations: Compositions in Wax, Paper, and Yarn is on view at the Sherman Gallery, George Sherman Union, 775 Commonwealth Ave., second floor, through October 30. The gallery is open Tuesday to Friday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m. The show is free and open to the public.

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john o'rourke, editor, bu today
John O’Rourke

John O’Rourke can be reached at orourkej@bu.edu.

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