A hidden pleasure

Writer: 
August 18, 2017

Jimmie Banks’ first job as an electrician at Duke involved changing lightbulbs in the chapel—lowering the chandeliers weekly to replace any that had burned out. It came naturally, since he had spent a few years before that working for a Raleigh company that changed factory light bulbs.

He’d been a cook, too, and he’d wired up mobile homes and laid down underground wires and fiber-optic cables.

But when he sits in the Bryan Center taking a break and seemingly every third person greets him or stops by to chat with him, nobody’s talking about light bulbs or cable or items on his work list—or, for that matter, even his constantly cheerful demeanor. What they like to talk to Banks about is his first and forever love: his art.

“Ever since I was a little kid,” he says, laughing at a table covered with his drawings. “My mom used to get calls from school, saying, ‘Jimmie is drawing stuff, not doing his work.’” Little has changed. Now fifty-five, Banks still would prefer to be drawing than doing most anything else. Not that he doesn’t enjoy his work as an electrician, and he does it first; but “I draw every single day.” He sits outside the McDonald’s in the Bryan Center, in his apartment, in restaurants all over town.

Almost all his pictures are portraits, whether of his family and friends (in sixth grade he made an oil painting of his brothers and sisters that he still remembers) or subjects as lofty and distant as the Last Supper. Banks lives to capture a likeness, to express humanity in a gesture, excitement in the glint of a spangle. Working in everything from pastel to ink, from oil to pencil, he often paints celebrities or images of stars from the internet: The pictures he has spread on the table include the cast of the ‘70s sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter, an image of Jennifer Hudson singing to Whitney Houston, Jennifer Lopez, Angelina Jolie, Michael Jackson. Football player Colin Kaepernick wearing a Muhammad Ali T-shirt.

He reaches out to people he draws, too—he made a portrait of Oprah Winfrey and sent it to her, and she wrote him a letter of thanks. He’s heard back from fan pages of many of the celebrities he’s drawn too. The most recent celeb he took a notion to draw was retiring Duke president Richard H. Brodhead. “I said I got to do something before he leaves,” Banks said when he heard about Brodhead stepping down. So he went online and got an image, created the portrait, framed it, and gave it to him. Brodhead loved the surprise. “I take it as a kind of joyous reminder that when you think you know people, there can be all kinds of gifts and dimensions to them that you might not have suspected.”

Though he sells pictures to subjects and in restaurants, flea markets, and galleries and has been hired to work at festivals, his art still doesn’t earn his living. Where does it reside in his life? “I would say it’s the center,” he says. The only time it’s ever moved from that central spot was when his two sons were young. “When I had a family to raise,” he says, “and work two or three jobs to make ends meet.” His boys are grown now, in their thirties and pursuing their own creative careers in restaurants and music. And though he can now focus on his artwork, that’s still never easy. “Sometimes you feel like giving up,” he says, but he carries on, and the appreciation of his community at Duke keeps him going. “People keep on seeing my work and saying, ‘Oh my goodness, that’s great,’ so you don’t give up.

“It gives me life. It gives me a joy—it just lifts me up. So much entertainment just by doing. I just like to inspire people and lift someone else up and bring some joy into their life.”

Art is his calling, his center, his purpose. The drawing calls to him even as he works: “Can’t wait to get to break. Get a little breather. Get a little rest. “And draw a little picture.”

  • Scott Huler is the senior writer at Duke Magazine.