In the early 1930s in New York, Bannarn furthered his formal training at the Beaux Arts Institute of Design and at the Art Students’ League where he studied with direct carver Ahron Ben-Shmuel, (1903-1984). Combining the formal training he received in both Minnesota and New York with his own distinct creative vision and selfless encouragement of young black artists, Bannarn quickly emerged as an important figure of the early Harlem Renaissance. At the time few opportunities were available in Harlem for arts education. Established in 1931, Augusta Savage’s (1892-1062) studio was one of the first to offer aspiring artists classes in painting and sculpture. Initially held in Savage’s own studio at 163 West 43rd Street, interest in the program and the growing number of students soon required a move to larger quarters at 239 West 135th Street. The Harlem Art Workshop, established in 1933 under the direction of the Works Progress Administration, was located at the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library. Headed by James Wells (1902-1993) and Palmer Hayden (1890-1973) the fine arts component of the workshop was relocated, again due to the growing number of students, to a former nightclub at 207 West 136th Street. In 1933 Wells returned to his teaching position at Howard University leaving the direction of the program to painter Charles Alston (1907-1977). Alston and Bannarn again relocated the workshop a year later to more spacious quarters at 306 West 141st Street. The “306” as it became known, was “the main center in Harlem for creative black people in all the arts”2 and Bannarn was regarded as one of it’s most able and dedicated teachers. Among the aspiring young artists he mentored were Romare Bearden (1911-1988), Norman Lewis (1909-1979), and Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) who later recalled Bannarn’s influence “I rented a space from Mike and learned a great deal just being around him. He had a lot of experience, having gone through a regular formal art education program in Minnesota, Bannarn knew about printmaking, sculpture, and various other media.”3 Elton Fax (1909-1993), illustrator, author, and fellow teacher at the “306” recalled Bannarn as being “… magnetic. Young artists gravitated toward him like bees around a hive.”4 Adding to this profile, Bannarn’s daughter recalled that he
“…liked nothing better than to teach and encourage young black artists…. He had no intellectual or artistic limits. Books were everywhere. He never stopped learning or encouraging others to do the same. This is probably because in his lifetime, an opportunity for education was never a given – it had to be taken full advantage of.“5
As an artist, Bannarn possessed a deep social conscience, favoring subjects emblematic of the African-American experience. One of his most powerful sculptures is Lynch Victim, c. 1940, (unlocated), the torso of a hanged man carved from the natural fork of an applewood branch – stylistically blending figuration and abstraction. Midwife, c. 1940, (Hood Museum of Art), and Daywork, c. 1940, (Clark Atlanta University Art Museum) both demonstrate his affinity for carving rather than modeling and for ordinary working class subjects.
Lamenting the lack of African-American history in public school education, Bannarn told the New York Amsterdam News in 1937
“They know about George Washington … and not about Crispus Attucks – about Admiral Perry and not Matt Henson” “This is not as it should be. I want to be a means of them knowing the Attuckses, the Hensons, the Pushkins and the Douglasses. I will not rest until they do … I want to contribute in the field of art to the culture of the Negro in the same manner that the subjects I portray have contributed to Negro culture and the general culture of America” 6
In 1936 Bannarn was commissioned by Howard University to execute a bust of abolitionist, orator, and statesman Frederick Douglass (c. 1818-1895) in black marble.7 It is unclear if the commission was ever carried out although a plaster model of the Douglass portrait, formerly on long-term loan to the Schomburg Collection, remained in the estate of the artist. In 1938 Howard University’s Theta Chapter of Phi Delta Kappa Sorority commissioned Bannarn to model a portrait of the first African-American arctic explorer and the first African-American member of the Explorers Club, Matthew Henson, who accompanied Robert Peary on twenty arctic expeditions spanning two decades. 8 Portrait of Matthew Henson remains in the Howard University Gallery of Art Library.
Returning to Minnesota in 1940, Bannarn used his backyard as a sculpture studio, working with materials that he could find locally. Stone from an abandoned quarry was transformed into Daywork and John Brown, 1940, Howard University Art Gallery, a dead apple tree provided the branch for his Lynch Victim. Bannarn’s production of sculpture and painting that year was sufficient to mount a one-man exhibition at the Harriet Hanley Gallery in Minneapolis. The Director of the Minneapolis Arts Institute, Russell A. Plimpton, selected three works from the Henley exhibition to be included in the Institute’s annual Local Artist’s Exhibition. Awards were given for Bannarn’s entries in sculpture and watercolor. Four years later Plimpton acquired Bannarn’s watercolor The Smoker, c. 1944, for the Minneapolis Arts Institute’s permanent collection.
Inducted into the Army c. 1940, Bannarn’s painting skills were put to use as a member of the Army’s Special Services Division at Camp Plauche, Harahan, Louisiana where he created a series of murals depicting soldiers on furlough in various theaters of operation. For his post at Charleston Port of Embarkation, South Carolina he completed murals depicting American soldiers on leave around the world. His work for the Division extended to recruitment and war bond posters, the first such service and support images to depict African-American soldiers as a fighting men. Bannarn continued to paint on his own time, mounting an exhibition at the Byrne Street USO, Petersburg Virginia, in 1942. The program included a lecture by Alonzo Aden, curator at Howard University Gallery of Art, and was presided over by Miss Amaza Lee Meredith, head of the Department of Art at Virginia State College. Bannarn’s Rowhouses, Charleston South Carolina, c. 1942 was completed during this productive period.
Bannarn exhibited both painting and sculpture regularly throughout his career. Starting in 1928, at age 18, his painting entry to the Minnesota State Fair Art Exhibition was awarded first prize; thirteen years later his sculpture entry to the State Fair Exhibition won a first premium award. In 1932 his entries at the Minneapolis Institute of Art received awards for sculpture and watercolor. At the Harmon Foundation’s Fifth Exhibition of Negro Art in 1933, Bannarn exhibited a Male Torso (unlocated) along side works by fellow sculptors Richmond Barthé (1901-1989) and William Artis (1914-1977). Other exhibitions followed including annuals at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, (1934; 1936), (Bannarn was the first African-American to exhibit at PAFA since Henry O. Tanner); the Baltimore Museum of Art, 1939; Newtown Gallery, Arthur University, Chicago, American Negro Exhibition, 1940; Atlanta University, 1943, 1944, 1945, and 1948, among others.
Bannarn is represented in several public collections; Hood Museum, Midwife, c. 1940; Clark Atlanta University Art Museum, Daywork, c. 1940; and Minneapolis Institute of Arts Cleota Collins, 1932. Collins, an accomplished African-American opera singer, performed with the Metropolitan Opera from 1912 to 1920 and was a founding member of the National Association of Negro Musicians, an organization whose goal was to raise the standard of music instruction and to promote the work of black musicians and composers. Most recently, from a private collection, Bannarn’s large oil on canvas Modernist Exhibition, c. 1957, has been on view at the Birmingham Museum of Art, Alabama.
Around 1949 Bannarn returned to New York working first from his home studio in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn then, three years later, a brownstone in Bedford Stuyvesant on the corner of Lafayette and Marcy Streets. From his fourth floor studio he recorded the demolition of a neighboring building in his painting Sam’s Luncheonette, c. 1953. The night lights of Manhattan, dotting the cityscape across the East River and visible from his studio window, inspired his painting City Lights, c. 1953. Henry “Mike” Bannarn contracted cancer and, in 1965, passed away in his home.
1. Recollections by the artist’s daughter, c. 1995
2. Bearden, Romare and Harry Henderson, History of African-American Artists, p. 260
3. Samella Lewis, Jacob Lawrence, Black Art: an International Quarterly: 5, no. 3 (1982): 8.
4. Donaldson, Jeff, Generation “306”, Northwestern University, 1974, p.112
5. Recollections by the artist’s daughter, c. 1995
6. Marvel Cooke, “Carving for Posterity,” New York Amsterdam News, November 12, 1937.
7. An uncredited reference from 1936 states “Recently, he [Bannarn] started a bust in black marble of Frederick Douglass, Negro, and one of the founders of the Republican Party, for the alumni of Howard University”. The commission was also referenced in Gilpin, R. Blakeslee; John Brown Still Lives: America’s long Reckoning with Violence, Equality, & Change, University of North Carolina Press, 2011, p. 161.
8. Robert Peary met Matthew Henson in 1886 while outfitting for an expedition to Nicaragua. Upon learning that Henson had six years of seagoing experience Peary offered him a position. Henson would remain Peary’s “first man” and a critical member of his team for over twenty subsequent expeditions into Greenland and the North Pole.