Few designers have the privilege of working alongside masterpieces of art, and I count myself among those lucky few!
Six months ago, I joined the Gibbes Museum of Art as the new in-house graphic designer, and I’ve been pinching myself ever since. I recall the rainy summer Charleston day when I interviewed for this position. During the interview, Executive Director Angela Mack made the poignant observation that people in the arts often follow a path that is more meandering than straight-lined. Such has been the case for me. Although I came armed with a BA in graphic design and MFA in illustration, my path has indeed been a meandering one.
It began over a decade ago, when I left my hometown in upstate New York to venture down south for graduate school. With formal training in graphic design, illustration and studio art, I sought out to build a creative, integrated, meaningful life.
The next ten years were spent building my freelance illustration portfolio, while cultivating a professional career at the Savannah College of Art and Design. My role as director of scholarships, admission, and regional recruitment took me all over the globe, participating in numerous gallery and museum based events around the United States, China and Korea. In fact, during my last years at SCAD, as part of an effort to align with premier galleries and art museums, we began hosting annual information sessions at the Gibbes Museum of Art. I remember thinking this would be an incredible place to work. Kismet in motion!
Fast-forward to today. Not only am I working for a premier art museum, but one that is dedicated to preserving and promoting the art of Charleston and the American South. Surrounded by history, art and story. This resonates. I thrive on storytelling, whether it be using graphic design to tell the story of the Gibbes, or using my oil paints to create an illustration. My dual-career in illustration has often focused on traditional narratives and historic themes, ideas that continue to gain inspiration from my role at the Gibbes.
On my “commute” to the museum, I walk through the canopy of trees (the hidden Gateway Walk) and approach the iconic century-old building, and I am cognizant of my unique role. I get to design all of the print materials for this amazing art museum!
Graphic designers are the ultimate visual communicators. My goal is always to organize information in a way that clearly communicates the message in a beautiful way. As a designer, I have the power to pair together fonts and images into materials that connect with viewers and make a lasting impression. If I succeed, then each person that encounters a Gibbes branded piece will catch a glimpse of the Gibbes experience, a teaser that culminates in more foot traffic and deeper devotees.
Upon my inaugural tour of the Gibbes gallery space in late August, I was given my first assignment: to create all of the museum signage for Photography and the American Civil War, the record-breaking fall exhibition organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Posters of gilt-framed Civil War soldiers. My responsibilities included: banners featuring original Matthew Brady photographs, and old-timey typefaces and sepia toned images (a haunting contrast to the current Romantic Spirits exhibition). It was a sweet introduction to the thrill of welcoming a new exhibit every few months.
And that was only the beginning. Next, I was asked to design collateral for the Distinguished Lecture Series, featuring a Picasso (pinch) and Cubist art collector Leonard A. Lauder, Chairman Emeritus of The Estée Lauder Companies Inc. Then we moved onto the Gibbes Women’s Council Art of Design invitation honoring renowned New York interior designer Charlotte Moss. This project was followed closely by a collaboration with auxiliary group Gibbes, etc. to create the Kiawah Art & House Tour materials. Ads, posters, postcards and such, for a myriad of Gibbes events, exhibitions, educational programming, and of course, the epic Annual Report (a member magazine that includes information on exhibitions, programs, events, education, development and the financials for the past fiscal year)!
One of the benefits of working as an in-house designer is the opportunity to build relationships and become truly invested in the mission of the organization. And so, I’ve been warmly welcomed by the immensely talented Gibbes staff and wildly supportive auxiliary groups. This is the life force that is so necessary in the arts community, reminding Charleston about the importance of supporting the city’s only visual arts museum. Now I get to be part of this life force.
I continue to work as an illustrator, which I juggle alongside my dream job at the Gibbes. As an illustrator I’ve created three nationally published children’s books, which have earned recognition in The New York Times’ Best Children’s Books, The Washington Post, and Parents magazine, as well as the Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Gold Award and Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Bigotry and Human Rights Outstanding Book Award. Other clients have included Highlights for Children Magazine, The Weekly Reader and Harvard Business Review. And I occasionally pause to participate in a gallery show. My work has been featured in collaborative shows with Faith Ringgold, Benny Andrews, and Eric Carle (The Very Hungry Caterpillar illustrator & author) in exhibitions at the Asheville Art Museum and other galleries in the southeast. Locally, my work has been highlighted in Charleston City Paper, The Post and Courier’s Charleston Scene and the cover of Art Mag.
I also teach Drawing and Photoshop classes at Trident Technical College and have recently worked as a consultant for the Columbus College of Art and Design in Ohio, endeavors that keep me connected to higher education.
And although I’ll always be hopelessly devoted to my native New York, I consider myself an adopted Southerner. Married to my Southern soul mate (and co-artist Timothy Banks), we live a thoroughly creative, chaotic life together with a toddler, baby, and two Southern pugs.
I couldn’t be happier. And I couldn’t work for a more inspiring, culturally significant landmark in the heart of the most beautiful city in the world. Charleston is lucky to have a gem like the Gibbes Museum of Art. And I am so lucky to add the Gibbes to my story now.
—Erin Bennett Banks, Graphic Designer, Gibbes Museum of Art