DENISE BANKUTI: 9/11 Truth by Example

Artist Denise Bankuti in her studio, copyright 2012

"Artists paint their truth. And through that truth, history reveals itself."  
Denise Bankuti—artist

 by Frank Messina

Atop the escalator of the Grove Street PATH station in Jersey City, someone handed me a flyer. "Big art show," a young man said. "We're showing a film about the truth of 9/11, then having a round-robin discussion." I stared down at the flyer—a crude drawing of an American flag with a question-mark in the middle. "But what about the art," I asked. "9/11 art doesn't sell," he said. "But we have lots of DVDs, and books. People love them, and it helps pay the rent."

The brief encounter led me back to the sneaking suspicion I've had since the months after the attacks—that artists have largely avoided the subject of 9/11 in their work. 

But given such a moment in history, why have artists failed this calling?

As I walked toward the river, standing less than a mile from where so many died, I pondered the question. The possibilities ebbed and flowed in my mind—maybe the subject is too painful, or on the contrary, not "inspiring" enough. Or perhaps, in a clear capitalistic and entrepreneurial sense, as suggested by the man with the flyer, art on the subject of 9/11 just isn't as attractive or commercially viable as a conspiracy-laden 9/11 "truth" film. 

Or is it is something else?

The website of The National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York City features an artist registry section where artists, authors, poets and musicians can upload their content along with a resume`. The cost is free. 

Of the nine-hundred artists listed, many are from overseas, including Egypt, Israel, The Netherlands and the Philippines. Some are seasoned professionals, but the great majority are amateurs collectively brought together for the purpose of confronting 9/11 through the eyes of an artist.

Chaos, Oil on Canvas, copyright Denise Bankuti

There are simple drawings, as well as elaborate murals and mixed-media compositions. 

One day, while perusing the site, a particular image gripped me out of my skina painting entitled "Chaos", by Denise Bankuti.

I clicked the "contact artist" link and composed a brief email to let Bankuti know how much her painting moved me. As a fellow artist, I know a simple gesture of appreciation goes a long way. I did not expect a response. 

A few days later, I did receive one. And it wasn't long before I found Bankuti to be one of the few professional artists who courageously confronted the horror of 9/11, refreshingly, without an overt political agenda. 

A year later, I asked Ms. Bankuti for an interview with Fine Art Investigations. 

"I'm definitely a California girl," Bankuti said—and of the rare born-and-raised variety. 

Her grandparents on her father's side were immigrants from Hungary, and after working as farm hands and getting sponsored in Ohio, they moved to Chicago, where her mother lived. Around 1941, her parents moved to Burbank.

Before her father died, he built a studio for her on the second story of their home—a gift for which she is thoroughly grateful.

"Every morning I go into the studio and start working. It's a wonderful place to create. I feel like my family is still around me," she said.

Bankuti also has fond memories and appreciation for her grade school art teacher, Helen Manezon, who was one of the illustrators at the Nuremberg trials after World War II. Manezon would take the promising young Bankuti under her wing, but not without a bit of tough love from the old school.

"She gave me a lesson that I will never forget," Bankuti said. She described how Manezon came to check on the progress of a painting she'd been painstakingly working on for a week. She told Bankuti it was fantastic and that she'd like to put it on the wall for everyone to see. The young artist's head swelled with pride.

But then Manezon took the paper towel that Bankuti had been wiping her paint brush off with and put it in front of the whole class. Bankuti paraphrased the teacher. "'You have more freedom and better color in that paper towel than you have in that piece of work you've been working on for a whole week.'" 

"At the time i was devastated," Bankuti said. But the lesson had served its purpose. After completing high-school, she won a scholarship to the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. She later attended Otis Art Institute until 1973. 

Another teacher that played a major role in Bankuti's development was Edmund Hill. "He taught me everything I know about structure," she said. The two would become life-long friends.

Bankuti said Hill introduced her to the work of the master artist Charles White, who's social realist drawings show poignant, and volatile depictions of the civil rights movement.

Inspired by his work, and his humanity, Bankuti painted a picture of White. "I did a 5'x10' painting in one color (sepia) in one tube of paint on canvas and entered it in a national contest, and it won out of 18,000 entries," Bankuti said.
The Last Thing I Remember, copyright Denise Bankuti

With the encouragement from mentors and family alike, Bankuti strove to live her dream as an artist. It wasn't always easy, but the savvy Burbank native wasn't going to give up, even if it meant taking a job for a while to make ends meet.

A neighbor offered her a position as a receptionist for Hollywood talent agent Herb Tannen. Bankuti accepted the job, but with the caveat that she wouldn't work after her 30th birthday. Tannen agreed.

There, the 25-year old Bankuti learned to work the ropes in her favor, establishing acquaintances with Hollywood's A-list, and turning some of them into proud owners of original Bankuti's.  

"I sold paintings to Burt Lancaster," she said. "I did an 8' x 4' painting of Tina Turner for her home. She commissioned me to do the painting of her." 

And the list goes on: Sidney Poitier, Kirk Douglas.

Armed with her golden address book, Bankuti had no trouble booking exhibitions. And on her 30th birthday, she quit her job as promised. 

"Instead of show-business using me, I used it," Bankuti said. "I've been a working artist ever since."

Bankuti's success is inspiring. But the manner in which she artistically responded to 9/11 is fully remarkable.

"The first recording of historical events was through drawing, and painting," she said. "Artists paint their truth. And through that truth, history reveals itself. It doesn't always mean that what the artists portray is everyone's truth. But their opinion has to be put down. Because that shows where our society and our culture were coming from at that moment."

Fallen Heroes, copyright Denise Bankuti

Last September, Bankuti's work was exhibited at Penn State Berks Freyberger Gallery and at The Gallery at Lehigh Valley University to commemorate the tenth anniversary of 9/11.

She poignantly described how the son of a firefighter, who suffers 9/11-related mental health issues, came to her during the exhibition and said that her work gives great honor to his father. "The graciousness of the New Yorkers who came up to me..." She paused for a moment. "I was just trying to record history of our country."

As she spoke, I thought back to the flyer-man at the PATH station, who said 9/11 works "don't sell." I then tried to quantify, in dollars, Bankuti's experience in Pennsylvania with the New Yorkers, with the firefighter's son. 

What price can you put on that? 

For Bankuti, the answer is obvious. Despite huge accolades for her 9/11-related works, they are not for sale. Not even to the Hollywood glitterati.

"I am more interested in placing my artworks in a place of honor rather than getting paid for it," Bankuti said. 

"When I die, I'll sure as hell know that there are schoolchildren who are going to come to that small museum in Burbank. And they're going to leave asking questions, maybe, wanting to know more."

Denise Bankuti's website:
Thanks to Denise Bankuti and the September 11 Memorial & Museum.
 All photos and text are copyright protected and may not be copied or disseminated without the expressed written consent of Denise Bankuti, and the Artist Rights Society.