JULY 22, 2022 — Thrift shoppers around the world dream of uncovering an ancient Roman relic in a Goodwill store or some other valuable “diamond in the rough” that they can take home for a budget-friendly bargain. William Pugh, assistant professor of practice for the UTSA Department of Information Systems and Cyber Security, recently discovered such a gem: a Keith Bankston painting titled “Eve in the Rose Garden.”
One of his earlier works, Bankston conceived “Eve in the Rose Garden” in 1982 shortly after graduating from Florida State University. Bankston, a cherished African American artist in his home state of Georgia, portrays an encounter that led to Adam and Eve’s infamous banishment from the Garden of Eden in the Book of Genesis. The deceptive serpent intertwines its body with Eve’s, whispering in her ear as dusk settles on the garden.
Pugh and his wife found the painting while shopping in a Covington, Georgia, thrift store in May. The professor, who’s also an undergraduate history major, was drawn to the artwork’s biblical themes. He found himself becoming curious about Eve’s thoughts and the serpent’s motivations while gazing at the warm hues of the canvas. Pugh also appreciated Bankston’s attention to folkloric detail.
“It’s not necessarily mentioned in The Bible, but there are legends and stories that say that before Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden of Eden, roses didn’t have thorns,” Pugh explained. “He depicts that perspective in this painting.”
Bankston drew inspiration for his painting from a famous 1981 photo titled “Natassja Kinski and the Serpent” by American photographer Richard Avedon. The photo depicts German actress and model Natassja Kinski wearing a large bracelet on her left wrist and lying on the ground with a snake wrapped around her. Bankston's “Eve” was clearly cut from Kinski's iconic mold.
While the artwork itself was striking, so too was the crisp, clear blue signature in the painting’s lower right-hand corner. Pugh realized he had come across an original painting and immediately searched the web to find out more about Keith Bankston.
According to the Digital Library of Georgia, Bankston was born and raised in Macon. He was inspired to pursue a career in art during a trip to Paris shortly after his high school graduation. After attending Florida State, he would return to Middle Georgia to teach art in the Bibb County public schools while simultaneously working to establish himself as an exhibiting artist. However, his fledgling art career was cut short when he died from AIDS in 1992 at the age of 34.
Pugh also found that multiple Bankston paintings were part of the collection at the Tubman African American Museum in Macon, an educational and cultural hub that strives to enrich cultural understanding and present the highest quality art to the Georgia communities it serves. Upon reading about Bankston and the Tubman Museum, Pugh knew he wanted to purchase the painting. But he no longer wanted to keep it.
“I really like it. But something like this—by a known artist in Georgia—would provide the most benefit in a museum in Georgia where everyone else can enjoy it,” Pugh said.
He bought Bankston’s “Eve in the Rose Garden” for $125 and wasted no time reaching out to Jeff Bruce, the director of exhibitions for the Tubman Museum, with intentions of donating the piece. The museum was excited to hear about the painting’s existence and happy to accept his gift. The museum will add “Eve in the Rose Garden” to its permanent collection of African American art.
“Keith Bankston is a beloved figure in the art community in Macon. His story is a kind of tragic tale of what could have been—of great potential that was never fully realized due to the AIDS epidemic.” Bruce said. “His light was just beginning to shine, so we honor the promise of his talent by collecting and exhibiting his work, and by sharing the story of his short but impactful career with young people in Middle Georgia, as well as visitors from across the country.”
The painting was carefully shipped and arrived at the Tubman Museum on Wednesday, July 20. A value for the piece has yet to be determined.
“Even if it’s worth substantially more, I’ve always had the inclination that I wanted to donate it,” Pugh said. “The Tubman Museum in Macon is the perfect place for it.”
“Eve in the Rose Garden” (left) will soon be joining other Keith Bankston artworks like “Gal Young’un” (right) as part of the Tubman African American Museum’s collection.
In the meantime, Pugh said he’ll continue to visit thrift stores and estate sales in search of objects that mean something to him—especially those with ties to American or military history.
Pugh is a pilot and U.S. Air Force veteran, who served as a navigator, weapons system officer and electronic warfare officer. Those experiences have often influenced his work in the Carlos Alvarez College of Business’ information systems and cyber security department, where he teaches upper-level undergraduate and graduate courses for a program that consistently ranks among the nation’s best.
From military goods to commemorative items to old photographs, he’s unearthed an assortment of interesting antiquities.
The Bankston painting was one score, however, that Pugh just had to share with the world.
“Hanging in an office or a bedroom in my house probably wouldn’t be the best place for it,” he said with a chuckle.
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