Ellen Banks-Feld, artist, chanteuse and philanthropist, leaves behind a legacy at 79.Ellen Banks-Feld left many things behind when she passed away on May 18th, 2017, but one thing she left behind, was something that she built, her legacy, which will last for lifetimes to come.
Ellen was an internationally acclaimed painter with her work showcased in museums like the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the Boston Museum of Fine Art and in galleries throughout Europe. She also established a reputable and well-received singing career here in New York City. Her work was both timeless and invaluable.
But when you build a true legacy, it expands beyond your artistic accomplishments. You become a role model for those who come after you. You are a support and inspiration for others and create a foundation upon which those who come after you can in turn build their own legacies. This is what Ellen Banks-Feld has done for all of us.
How many people she influenced we may never know. The students, friends, neighbors, fellow artists, nationally and internationally, she influenced was and is extensive.
Ellen Banks-Feld was born and raised in Roxbury, just outside of Boston in, Massachusetts in 1938. Her father used to play the piano for silent films and also worked for the postal service. Her mother tutored children and was one of the first women to get an insurance broker’s license. In addition, her parents were both fervent civil rights activists. They testified in the state house in Boston about unfair practices against African Americans and organized support for political leaders. She was one of five siblings. Her youngest brother, Dr. George Banks, because of her influence and support growing up, has gone on to become a civil rights activist, social scientist and professor.
The arts were in her blood since the beginning. “For many years I played the piano in the morning and painted in the afternoon, or I painted in the morning and played the piano in the afternoon. Sometimes I listened, sometimes I painted ... always the dual needs” Ellen said about her art. “I was intrigued by the written scores and often before playing I would look and enjoy...exhilarated by the spacing, symbol relationships, patterns of light and dark the magic they contained. I was always painting.”
Ellen was a maverick for her time, attending the Massachusetts College of Art and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts in Boston in the 1950’s when women, let alone women of color, were expected to keep their place- and to the back of the bus. During that time she had to develop herself, not only as an artist, fine tuning her skills, but develop her own sense of confidence and appreciation for her own work. A constant struggle for any artist.
After graduation she went on to display her work in exhibitions, both solo and group, win awards and was featured in dozens of articles and books all over the world. She was frequently published in the New York Times and the Boston Globe. She began being featured in solo exhibitions in Brazil, the Netherlands, Bulgaria, Poland, and across the United States. (To see all of Ellen’s exhibitions and accolades, please check out: http://ellenbanks.net/resume-)
While Ellen was developing into an internationally known artist, in 1974 she began teaching at the Massachusetts School of Fine Arts. Her legacy really began here, as she became a role model for so many, a strong, independent, sensitive, intuitive, African-American woman, professor and artist. One of her first students include longtime friend, Jack Mosher. “Ellen was a devoted friend, and an endless source of inspiration to me for all of our 42 years shared. I loved her. Her strong spirit and elegance of being are hooked into the fiber of my soul. Those years began as a teacher/student relationship in 1975 in Boston. My friendship with Ellen just grew and grew over time. We were very attune to each other's sensibilities. I am a painter. Ellen was and is my mentor.”
Sometimes as artists, we spend so much time worrying about how our work is going to be received. How we will make enough money to support ourselves. Where we will distribute our work and how. And we forget that not only are all the critics watching us, but so are so many others in our lives. Not only students who are coming along in need of support but family and friends as well. Ellen left behind in her wake a wave of the next generation of artists who would never have come up through the ranks if it hadn’t been for her.
“If it wasn’t for my aunt, I never would have moved to New York City,” says her niece, Matina Banks. “She was a catalyst. When I was 16 she offered for me to come live with her so that I could attend LaGuardia (“Fame” High School). My parents wanted me to finish high school in Virginia so she continued to encourage me to keep dancing and never give up. Her door was always open. Not only was she always supportive of my career, she let me explore and make mistakes and learn from them without judgment. In a way she helped me get my start and define myself as an artist and as a woman of color.” After an extensive teaching career of working with under-privileged children throughout New York city, Matina has created and now runs a not-for-profit project for children.
Beloved by her community of Park Slope, Brooklyn, neighbors fondly remember Ellen’s constant support both personally but also her philanthropy through the organization of community events. Even Ellen’s little dog Godeeva often accompanied her everywhere she went, bringing smiles to people everywhere.
“I'm going to miss my next-door neighbor,” says Lisa Philp. “She was a treasure: a free spirit, a painter, a gardener, a traveler, an animal lover, and an enthusiast about life. She was always expanding her horizons. Rest in peace, my friend. You will always inspire me to live life to the fullest.”
Inspiration comes from all places and one thing that Ellen did as a role model for others was show what it meant to do to never give up. To fight and have the courage to keep going. Not only was Ellen an inspiration to others but she herself, was always open to inspiration from others.
Ellen was a huge Yankees fan, but her love for the home team didn’t start because of a love for baseball. In 1993, her husband, Bernard T. Feld, passed. In 1996 after 3 years of facing isolation and loneliness, Ellen was depressed. “I remember her telling me she had started listening to the radio just to break the silence and the emptiness in the house,” her niece recalls. And as it turned out it was the year of the Yankees greatest comeback. Little by little as the Yankees pulled out of their losing streak and eventually went on the win the World Series so Ellen did find the strength to keep going. “She told me that it gave her such inspiration, that if they could come back from being so down, then she could do it to.” She was a fan ever since.
In addition to her work as an artist, Ellen was an avid gardener, always maintaining her beautiful backyard Brooklyn garden. She said that was where she felt the most at peace. She spoke several languages, including German and French and had quite a library of publications in several languages.
Ellen’s true success as an artist and in life was from acknowledging the challenges in life and finding the ways and strength to overcome them. She wasn’t afraid of not fitting in but life did take a toll on her from time to time. She used to say, “Three strikes you’re out, you know, I’m an artist, I’m a woman, and I’m Black.”
Yet she always kept going. “If you don’t laugh, you cry, “ was one of her favorite sayings.
Ellen, we will not cry for you, but laugh, smile, fight in your memory and go on to live another day and create our own legacies. Thank you for all you have given us. Your life was truly a celebration.
Ellen’s husband, world-renowned nuclear physicist, Bernard, T. Feld, passed away in 1993, also of cancer. Ellen is survived by her brother, Dr. George P. Banks, and her loving family of nieces and nephews, students, friends, neighbors and colleagues.
To send your condolences and/or if you are interested in attending Ellen’s memorial, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or sign the guest book. We are also collecting photos and anecdotes for her memorial.
Last updated 1/21/2018.