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Henry Bannarn was born July 17, 1910 in Wetumpka, Hughes County, Oklahoma and received a scholarship from Minneapolis philanthropist James Ford Bell to study art at the Minneapolis School of Art before teaching there and also teaching classes at Harlem Community Art Center in New York City.
Bannarn co-operated with Charles Alston to establish the Alston-Bannarn workshop at 306 West 141st Street – known as 306 – where they mentored African American artists such as Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence under Bannarn’s guidance. His works revealed his strong social consciousness.
Early Life and Education
Henry Bannarn was born in Wetumpka, Oklahoma on July 17, 1910. Thanks to philanthropist James Ford Bell and Minneapolis art educator Phyllis Wheatley’s generosity, Bannarn was able to relocate and enroll at Minneapolis School of Fine Arts (now University of Minnesota).
Bannarn taught at the Harlem Community Art Center before co-founding and running with Charles Alston the Alston-Bannarn Workshop located at 306 West 141st Street in New York City. Bannarn is also an accomplished sculptor and painter.
His work exhibits a strong social conscience, often depicting scenes emblematic of African American experience such as lynch victims and midwives. He excels both figurative and abstract forms; one such piece is Lynch Victim from 1940, which beautifully illustrates both styles and reverence for African art.
Bannarn served as both an artist and art teacher under the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression, working closely with Charles Alston – an African American painter at that time – to run Harlem Art Workshop together in New York City.
Bannarn created sculptures with an inherent social consciousness, often depicting subjects emblematic of black experience. An example is Lynch Victim from 1940 (unlocated), depicting an abstract yet realistic representation of hanging by means of an attached rope and featuring elements fusing both representation and abstraction in its style.
Howard University art historians regarded Bannarn as one of the premiere sculptors during the Harlem Renaissance and noted his bust of abolitionist leader John Brown combining passion with tremendous strength. Bannarn’s style echoed African art which provided important formal and ideological inspiration to many artists of this movement.
Achievement and Honors
Bannarn won several prestigious awards during his lifetime for both his painting and sculpture work, which can be found in prestigious collections nationwide; for instance a painting can be found at Hood Museum of Art Dartmouth while another piece (called Midwife) can be found at Clark Atlanta University Art Gallery.
During World War II, he served in the Army and created murals for Camp Plauche at Harahan Port of Embarkation in Louisiana as well as recruiting and war bond posters in Charleston, South Carolina. Additionally, he led 306 Harlem Art Workshop in New York.
Charles Alston admired him for combining technical virtuosity with passion and massive strength to produce striking sculptural forms, thus contributing significantly to African American art.
Born in Oklahoma and later moving to Minneapolis at an early age, Bannarn quickly excelled as both an artist and sculptor at Minnesota State Fair entries, winning first prize both times he entered paintings or sculpture. Furthermore he worked as a Works Progress Administration artist, teaching art classes at Harlem Community Art Center while remaining close with African American artist Charles Alston whom he became friends and collaborated with throughout his life.
He was widely recognized for his strong social consciousness and love of subjects that epitomized American negro culture, like Lynch Victim from 1940 (unlocated) and Midwife from 1940 (Hood Museum of Art). Midwives held an integral place in many African societies and were seen as healers and ritual specialists; Bannarn’s Midwife captures this role through its blocky presentation and stylized face which recalls primitive art while its rough-hewn surface recalls African sculpture.
Henry Bannarn amassed his estimated net worth between $1 Million – $9 Million through his primary career as an Artist.
He favored sculptures of historical figures like Frederick Douglass, John Brown and Matthew Henson as well as African-American strugglers like midwives and lynch victims from African descent. Additionally he created drawings, paintings and sketches in different paint mediums including conte crayon, pastel and freeform sketching.
Charles Alston, an esteemed painter and close companion of Bannarn during the Great Depression, assisted in leading his Harlem Art Workshop funded by the Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project and taught and mentored notable artists like Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden there. Additionally, Charles collaborated with Bannarn in organizing Harlem Artists Guild which put pressure on government grants by advocating more inclusion among grant recipients.