Ride of Her Life
Through her signature Little Red Tricycle series, Lafayette artist Vergie Banks captures an audience longing for the sentimental.
Photo by Terri Fensel
Whether observing her work in private or at a gallery, the first thing Vergie Banks asks you to do is simply look at her signature series. What do you see?
For most it’s easy: It’s a little girl on a red tricycle. Through the cubism composition of the pieces, they’re able to decipher the obvious – some electing to point out the features as they tell Banks: “There are the wheels. There’s the seat. There’s the little girl.”
And all of that is true, Banks tells them. It is a little girl riding a tricycle.
Yet she asks the question again: What do you see?
Upon a second, much deeper examination, the answer almost always changes – because the more you look at the little girl, the less you see and the more you feel. Without any prying on Banks’ part, complete strangers will openly share their own childhood memories, perhaps of receiving their own little red tricycles or some other symbol that inspired a sense of adventure, exploration or young discovery. One woman told Banks of a time when she rode across a busy street against her mother’s wishes, a truly liberating experience punctuated with a brief whupping from her father. Others talk of pedaling to the park or the store or terrorizing the dog or cat as they cruised through the family room to the kitchen.
That’s the genius of Banks’ series. No matter where people come from or their standings in life – rich or poor, urban or rural, boy or girl – chances are good that they too owned a little red tricycle. It’s something we all have in common.
“It’s a journey not only of myself and where I’ve been, but it’s also a journey for everyone else from my generation and other generations who had a little red tricycle,” Banks says. “That was our first mode of transportation – the Baby Boomers’ ride. So there’s a bond. People look at that piece and say, ‘That’s me.’”
One of the more commercially diverse artists in Acadiana (her art has appeared on tourism brochures and pamphlets, album and book covers, athletic apparel and festival posters), Banks plucks her inspiration from a deep pool of familiar experiences and mirrors the images found in a lot of local art: jazz and zydeco musicians, a fais do-do, two-steppers. Even the girl on the tricycle has scooted past a second line and brass band in a couple of paintings. Those pieces have found either temporary or permanent homes in the offices of state politicians, Marriott hotels in New Orleans and such local eateries as Café Des Amis in Breaux Bridge and Coyote Blues near the Mall of Acadiana.
The way in which Banks stands apart from the swelling Cajun art scene is through her delivery, not her subject matter. Her works evoke comparisons to the cubist style popularized by Pablo Picasso a century ago, each bursting with loud, unapologetic colors.
“As an artist, you study and your mind becomes accustomed to creating and as you create, you loosen up,” Banks says. “Everyone asks, ‘How do you put those colors together?’ It’s an inner part of me. It’s your mind and your soul bonding and harmonizing with art, producing the expression you want to express.
“I’m sure that’s hard to understand, but those who have been there probably are nodding their hands with me now. You go into yourself and come up with those creations.”
A self-described “different kid” who tugged on her mother’s dress or pant leg whining for art supplies while other children her age begged for toys, Banks didn’t formally study art until she left a retail sales job and enrolled at ULL as a sculpture and jewelry major when she was 27 years old. While her talent is what ultimately enticed her extensive (and occasionally famous) clientele list, Banks credits much of her early success to Kendall Banks, her husband, who proudly marketed her ability to insurance and investment partners he met with during the workday. Of all the pieces Kendall introduced, the Little Red Tricycle series always seemed to garner the most emotional response.
The genesis of Banks’ tricycle paintings dates back to a Christmas morning on her father’s farm in Broussard. Banks can’t quite remember the year, only that she was young enough to still be “tricycle-sized.” It was probably pretty cold that December morning, Banks figures, but that hardly mattered as she rode up and down the paths, expanding her tiny world. She pedaled furiously, meeting up with other little girls and boys for whom Santa also left a tricycle under the tree. In the harvest season, Banks rode alongside as her mother walked to pick blackberries for baking.
“The end of the journey was always a reward, always a treat,” Banks says. “That’s what that tricycle does for me, and at the end of the day, it’s a true blessing. You go farther than ever before. You’re growing up. You’re pedaling beyond the steps you could ever take. Your perspective expands. Your possibilities expand. And at the time, you don’t recognize it. You only recognize it now – for me when I paint that little girl and for others when they see her on the canvas.”