Cosmic Consciousness:  The Works of Robert Bannister

Robert Bannister had a genuine interest in cosmic consciousness and psycho cybernetics, areas of study he undoubtedly read about in the piles of books and scientific journals collected in the small rented room he lived in near downtown Champaign, Illinois. When I first met him in 1975, he often told me he had a “cosmic awareness of human life” Born in 1911 in Urbana Illinois (twin city to Champaign) Robert Bannister was stricken with tuberculosis of the hip when he was six years old. Young Robert lived in the Outlook Sanitarium in Urbana until he was 19 years old. After his release in 1930, Bannister stayed with people who he referred to as “foster  grandparents.”  He suffered from anemia and poor diet and was finally admitted to the  Champaign County Nursing Home in the mid-1950s. It was during this stay at the nursing home that Robert was first introduced to art tools. The home’s new innovative occupational therapy  featured instruction in weaving, quilting, woodwork, painting and horticulture.

 After his release in 1961, Bannister was left to live on his own.  He rented a cheap room near downtown Champaign and his impressions of the world around him were affected by the limits imposed by his disabilities and the loneliness he endured there. Robert Bannister’s tuberculosis had left him misshapen and unable to walk without a cane. His only contact with the outside world came during the short walk to the lunch counter once a day.  He took the opportunity to meet and talk with the restaurant workers and show the roll of drawings that he carried in his coat to anyone who showed interest. The inspiration for Bannister’s work came from a combination of sources. He collected magazines and books including volumes on Psycho-Cybernetics, Cosmic Consciousness, human anatomy, and popular science and science fiction. Bannister became familiar with Maxwell Matz’s 1960 book, Psycho Cybernetics, which delved into his theories about visualization and self-affirmation.

Humor played an important role in Bannister’s work.  Like the trickster character in folklore, Mr. Bannister’s work performed a balancing act, revealing inner truths and strengths with a visual shorthand of whimsy and horror.  He called his work “abstruse” and said he used color in his work to describe emotion.  Bannister’s most creative period occurred in a 10-15 year span beginning in the mid-1950s and ending around the time I met him in 1975.  Although he continued to surround himself with art materials, his interest in creating more work had begun to wane.  Subsequent encouragement from me and others resulted in only a few new pieces.  I included his work in a small exhibition of fellow downtown artists at my studio in 1976, and during that show he was befriended by several people who admired his work and wit, and encouraged his creative output.

In 1984 Mr. Bannister moved to a senior citizens building near downtown Champaign.  There, with assistance from various organizations, he was able to start living a more comfortable life.  In 1990, I took Chicago artist and curator Don Baum to visit Bannister.  Baum’s interest in Mr. Bannister was immediate and he was able to help arrange to have some of his art works displayed in an exhibit he was curating at the Arts Club of Chicago.  The show, titled “Visions: Expressions Beyond the Mainstream from Chicago Collections,” presented Robert Bannister’s work with such outsider artists as Reverend Howard Finster, Henry Darger, William Edmondson, Bill Traylor, and Sister Gertrude Morgan.  Mr. Bannister seemed pleased if not perplexed at being given such attention and took it all in stride.

Bannister always appeared to feel a sense of pride in his accomplishments as an artist.  Until his death in 1996 he continued to display his paints and other art materials on a tray next to his chair and always presented his cardboard portfolio of works to visitors who came calling. In 2006, I organized the exhibition Cosmic Consciousness:The Works of Robert Bannister, for the Krannert Art Museum and Kinkead Pavillion.  I was able to gather works from several sources, mostly people who had met Robert Bannister and had been drawn into his private universe. He had a unique vision and capacity for creating a visual language tinged with humor. He once said “understanding is the key that unlocks the door to the universe of love.”  He went on to state “you can have a library full of knowledge, but if you have no understanding, it’s of no use to you.”  After experiencing Robert Bannister’s work, I am beginning to understand.


Glen C. Davies

This is a variation written originally for the exhibition Cosmic Consciousness:The Works of Robert Bannister, organized by the Krannert Art Museum and Kinkead Pavilion, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2006.