ST. LOUIS – Artist Spencer Thornton Banks may not be among the most famous alumni of Sumner High School. But perhaps he should be.
Banks, who graduated from Sumner in 1932, was the foremost visual artist in the black community here for a half century. He has certainly earned a stamp of approval from Calvin Riley, founder, director and curator of the George B. Vashon Museum at 2223 St. Louis Ave.
Banks’ collection of art is the latest acquisition of Riley, who is also a historian, retired educator and graduate of Beaumont High School.
On Friday, Sept. 20, Banks will be the subject of a Washington University workshop for faculty members. Riley will help lead training in preservation, curation and exhibition with Banks’ works as the focus.
“He’s not as known as he should be,” Riley said.
However, Banks, who taught more than 60 students who went to become successful artists, is still being introduced posthumously.
Banks was born on June 5, 1912, and by the time he graduated from Sumner he was already creating a name for himself. He became best known for his portraits, but in 1932 he opened and operated the Veteran’s Sign and Art Company in The Ville.
The following year, he was hired to create a visual advertisement for the Chicago World Fair. His list of nationwide works is lengthy, including for the Navy, where he was a cartoonist for the Naval Air Station Newspaper.
Here at home, Banks was also a cartoonist for the St. Louis Argus and St. Louis American newspapers. He had a comic strip called “Joe Boot” in the old St. Louis Blues magazine. He died in 1983.
“It’s an awesome story,” said Sara Ryu, a postdoctoral fellow in Arts and Sciences in Washington U.’s Department of Art History and Archaeology. “And we have an opportunity to learn from Calvin and we get to support his mission with the museum.”
In the workshop, Ryu said, teachers will be the students, learning different ways of teaching. They will also learn more about becoming museum directors and curators.
“When people used to get Ph.D.s, they stayed working at the university,” Riley said. “But it doesn’t work like that anymore, so they have to redefine education for them, and the Spencer Banks Collection is a great avenue to direct them and take them in that direction.”