Original painting by Macon artist discovered at thrift store, donated to Tubman Museum

·4 min read
Shea Conner/Courtesy photo

An original painting by a beloved Macon artist was discovered by chance at a thrift shop.

In May, William Pugh, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, visited Georgia for a wedding and stayed with friends in Covington. He visited a thrift store there where a painting caught his eye.

The painting was priced at $125, but Pugh suspected the piece was an original based on its texture and appearance. He saw the artist’s signature as well as the title, “Eve in the Rose Garden,” written on the back of the piece and began researching. Pugh learned it was an original piece by Macon native Keith Bankston.

Bankston was an up-and-coming artist when he died due to health complications from AIDS in 1992 at age 34. He was born and raised in Macon and was inspired to pursue art after a trip to Paris, according to the Digital Library of Georgia. Bankston taught art in the Bibb County School District while working to build his presence as an artist.

While researching the artist’s Middle Georgia roots, Pugh learned that Macon’s Tubman Museum exhibits Keith Bankston pieces as part of their permanent African American art collection. He soon decided to buy the piece in order to donate it to the museum and got in touch with the museum’s director of exhibitions.

Pugh said he was inspired to donate the piece after learning that Bankston’s career was “cut short” due to AIDS and thought the museum would be the right home for it.

Jeff Bruce, the Tubman Museum’s director of exhibitions, said the museum was “very happy” to accept the 40-year-old painting and add it to its existing Bankston collection. He said Bankston’s signatures on “Eve in the Rose Garden” match the museum’s other pieces.

Though the story behind acquiring the painting is unique, a majority of the museum’s artwork is received by donation.

“I would say 95%, or maybe more, of what you see [at the museum] is donated,” Bruce said. “So, we really exist as a result of the generosity of people in this community and in this region finding things and then donating things to the museum. We can share these things with the public in ways that they wouldn’t be shared if we weren’t here to do it.”

Preserving Bankston’s local legacy as an artist aligns with the Tubman Museum’s mission to celebrate and educate the public about the history of African American art and artists across Middle Georgia and the state.

“It’s important history … and really giving people a kind of exposure to and having a discussion with the public about the diversity of African American creative expression, that’s part of what we do,” Bruce said. “We like to feature local artists … as much as we can to give a sense of what the creative community here is like. That includes what I call academic work or work by trained, professional artists. It also includes visionary work or work by self-taught artists. And it also includes work by local student artists. We try to be democratic as we can in terms of giving people the opportunity to see their work and see themselves represented in this space.”

“Eve in the Rose Garden” was painted in 1982 and depicts a biblical scene with Eve and the serpent laying in a garden of thornless roses near a river.

Pugh said there are some tales that roses in the Garden of Eden didn’t have thorns until Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit and committed the first sin. He suspects Bankston may have referenced this in the painting.

Pugh and Bruce both pointed out that Bankston referenced a famous 1981 photo, “Natassja Kinski and the Serpent,” by American photographer Richard Avedon. The photo shows German actress and former model Natassja Kinski wearing a large bracelet on her left wrist and laying on the ground with a snake, which is very similar to the way “Eve” is illustrated in Bankston’s painting.

Bruce said the museum’s four other Bankston works are inspired by depicting African American life in the South.

“Eve in the Rose Garden” was delivered to the Tubman Museum in July. It’s not on display yet, but Bruce said there is “a lot of interest” from the public and he’s sure it will be on exhibit “at some point in the near future.”