Inspired to help fill underground walls with public art, Terri Hughes-Oelrich, a City Professor of Fine Art, reached out to a former student to get started.
The first garage lots to be completed were designed by Kumeyaay artist and former city student Kenneth Banks.
For Banks, art has provided healing, comfort, and inspiration throughout his life—in his travels to Southeast Asia and Australia, in his home in Ramona with his grandmother as a child, in the midst of his near-death experiences, and within the city. art community.
His new mural blends traditional Kumeyaay characters with two very personal references to Banks.
A large figure reminiscent of a chariot adorns the left side of the painted wall – a figure that Banks describes as a “symbol of healing.”
He visited Indonesia years ago, immersed himself in different cultures, and visited a temple near Yogyakarta. Traveling companions invited Banks to try hallucinogenic mushrooms from a nearby tribal village. He experienced an allergic reaction with severe sunburn and dehydration after sleeping on the beach. Banks lost 40 pounds lying in bed for a week, then gathering strength to finally get to the hospital.
He said that number provides comfort and impetus to literally crawl for help during those dark days. Although he had seen it before, he had gained even more importance after he had nearly died.
It is now one layer among many frescoes titled Honoring Our Ancestors.
road to art
Trained in architecture, Banks earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees from UC Berkeley, but quickly realized that the work lacked the creativity he craved.
Seeking guidance from a Native American consultant, he helped illuminate a path into the art world.
After noticing that San Francisco lacked a gallery dedicated to current Native American art in the 1980s, Banks helped start and direct American Indian Contemporary Art Gallery, providing opportunities for Native American artists.
Representing other artists helped him realize that he could work as an artist himself.
Banks grew up in Ramona, a member of the Iipay Nation of Santa Ysabel where his grandmother was influential in his early years.
At the age of 8 or 9, he remembers being reprimanded by a teacher at school for daydreaming. When he later told his grandmother, she said, “Oh no. Your teacher doesn’t know anything. Daydreams are a vision.”
She tells him it reduces stress and gives you ideas, it’s one of the healthiest things you can do.
I also told him about what she called “dream windows” in Kumeyaay culture – a small object surrounded by a lei feather produced as a ritual, and a creative process, that makes you “get out of your head”.
Years later, he was inspired by her stories to create the windows of his own dreams, successfully selling them in powwows all over California.
City art community provides space to heal
After his mother, uncle and grandmother died within 18 months, Banks returned home from Northern California.
Ultimately seeking to reinvigorate his joy in art, which was his business, Banks took an art lesson in City with Hughes-Oelrich.
He continued recording over the next few years and “came back to life.”
The experience provided a way to separate studio space from home, and the opportunity to be around other artists.
Through this connection with Hughes-Oelrich, the garage mural was born nearly a decade later.
Banks said that when I first approached him to design a mural, he was hesitant. But when she heard that she wanted to honor the local Kumeyaay community, it piqued his interest.
mural in layers
Banks created the design, which Hughes Oilrich displayed on the wall, giving current and former students an opportunity to help bring the mural to life.
Although he wasn’t sure what to expect from the final mural, he said he was stunned by the similarity to his design.
Banks said he always painted rock paintings and was fascinated by them.
“It’s a connection to people in the past,” he said. “When I do that, I think about how they lived and how they suffered and what a completely different world it is.”
All but two of the figures Banks used for the mural are original Kumeyaay designs that he collected, drawn from the rich collection of Kumeyaay art that has been documented and depicted in San Diego County and northern Baja California – the land of the Kumeyaay tribe.
As he collected designs in preparation for work, he remained open to merging different cultures, but was shocked by the amount of wonderful artwork Kumeyaay found throughout the local area.
“Borrego has a lot of artwork,” Banks said. “And along the border, there is a lot of artwork on the other side of the border.”
“I don’t need to make any of these other designs. I have art here that I can work with from our ancestors.”
The two characters he has included that are not directly from Kumeyaay’s influences are his healing character on the left – the centipede-like being – and the large red human figure on the right.
Banks said the red shape was inspired by a character he loves near Death Valley, which reminds him of kachina — a concept in Pueblo Hopi culture he likens to the idea of angels. Cachinas can take many different forms – dolls, art, or people representing them with slogans.
Although the Kachina is not specific to the Kumeyaay, the Kachina has connections to its distant Native American relatives — Zuni, Paipai, Hualapai, and others, Banks said. It also questions whether the Kachina movement came here at some point, given the various trade routes in the past.
Banks said Kachina also reflects part of the indigenous culture that is still alive today in ritual, dance, dress, and even technology.
“I don’t just want to honor Kumeyaay today, I want to honor every Kumeyaay from the past too,” Banks said.
Banks said he tends to use layers in his work — three-dimensional shapes or colors that contrast with one another — although he did not intentionally create large-scale layers in mural design.
But when he stood back and saw the mural from afar, “I didn’t realize I was actually layering,” he said, extending his arm along the mural, “-the underworld, the surface world, and the sky.”
He also pointed to the curvy white figure, calling it a lifeline – a symbol he saw in North America, but first noticed in Australia.
Banks said that when he lived in Australia for a year, he spent time with the aborigines, and was amazed at the similarities in their culture to his tribe.
Although they spoke and sounded different, he saw the same tribal structure and parallels with the characters he knew in his tribal council.
Even the landscape was familiar and his connection to it.
Banks said he also credits his time in Australia and the people he met there years ago as having unexpectedly changed his thinking about how people of color are treated here in the United States.
Slowly over the year he was there, his view began to change.
“It has made a profound change in myself.”
Banks also reflected the importance of the environment in other aspects of an individual’s well-being, such as inspiring artistic talent.
When he first came to City College nearly a decade ago, he said the facility was fine at the time, but now the new AH building has taken students to the next level.
Since his retirement, he has been sitting in the ceramics class at Hughes-Oelrich as a volunteer assistant.
“There’s just amazing talent in that category, and I think it’s because of the facilities,” Banks said. “There is all this equipment, and it is spacious. It is unbelievable.”
The AH building was completed in 2014 It includes a range of modern equipment, a new gas mud oven, balconies and an abundance of natural light.
“This new facility is very good for students,” Banks said.
Hughes-Oelrich is also grateful for what Banks can share with current students, and the social aspect classes provide – networking between younger and older artists, different levels of experience, all learning from each other.
Student volunteers from different classes also helped paint the next mural in progress in AH’s garage of 40 threatened bird species – a collaboration between the artists and City College Audubon Club.
Banks featured some of his work–dream windows and vision shields–at the recent City Gallery handicraft sale, along with the work of other faculty and students.
He said that both types of pieces use a similar concept – a central figure surrounded by feathers, with four blades for the four directions. Dream windows are meant to be smaller, 5 by 7 inches, as his grandmother described. Sight shields are slightly larger at 8 x 10 inches.
Hughes-Oelrich created ceramic mugs inspired by the bank’s mural design, which is for sale in the City Gallery.
She said All the money raised of the mugs will go to Kumeyaay College on behalf of the mural work.
City Gallery Open Tuesday through Thursday from noon to 4pm for the remainder of Spring 2022.