Monica Banks: Times Square Sculptor

by Patsy Southgate | December 19, 1996

With her long dark hair and gentle manner, the sculptor Monica Banks, whose 164-foot "Faces: Times Square" was installed in the heart of Manhattan's theater district in May, seems to belong more in the formal gardens of some Merchant-Ivory film than in a muddy Springs backyard strewn with mangled dog toys.

More, certainly, than on the streets of New York's busiest intersection, where her gaudy red and black steel sculpture occupies the traffic median running from 45th to 46th Streets between Broadway and Seventh Avenue.

The cup of jasmine tea she served a visitor last week seemed more fitting, too, than the formidable oxyacetylene torch and welding mask in her studio, but it's this couching of the delicate and whimsical in the tough that drives her creative spirit.

Street Smarts

Take the story behind the Times Square piece, seen by over a million people a day, and stopping jaywalkers in their tracks - part of its function.

The 14-ton site-specific work comprises 40 three to five-foot-high line drawings of faces, forged of one-and-a-half-inch steel bars painted red, and welded to a jagged black fence that snakes between the lanes of honking cabs and trucks.

It's a witty, street-smart sculpture with an attitude, brash enough to dominate its garish surroundings, yet sprung from the most fragile of origins.

It all began with slender strands of wire.

Gravity's Curtain

Early in her career, when she was still a free-lance designer, Ms. Banks got an idea for a space divider made of resin-stiffened drapery material that would pool on the floor and rise into the air-an eerie curtain standing on its own, defying gravity.

The creative director of Barney's New York was so excited by the concept he commissioned her to design the windows for the chic department store forthwith.

"Do all 12 windows. We'll be showing rainwear; have them ready in a week. I'm off to the Bahamas, bye!" he said, and was gone.

With the help of many assistants, a resin contractor in Asbury Park, N.J., and a fancy moving company, she got the installations done on time: different kinds of curtains billowing up and blowing open, as in a storm.

Mysterious Leftovers

"They looked very cool and surreal at first," Ms. Banks said. "Then, overnight, half of them collapsed. They hadn't hardened properly."

A desperate trip to the hardware store for dowels, fishline, wire, tape, etc., saved the day, but her goal of defying gravity had been compromised. She went home to regroup, toting leftover lengths of very thin wire.

What to do with them? And with the assorted tiny plastic fish, toy boats, dead insects, and dried hydrangeas she'd somehow accumulated?

She "drew faces with the wire, glued on the boats and fish and insects for eyes and mouths, and topped them with the hydrangeas for kind of 'I Love Lucy' hair."

Serendipity

"I hung them all around the walls of my one-room apartment. They made nice shadows, and nodded and trembled slightly, very comforting after the trauma of Barney's. I thought of them as my friends."

"I also filled my little graphics studio with them. An architect friend took Polaroids and showed them to a friend of his, who just happened to be the director of the art gallery at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst."

"She loved them, and offered to give me my first show in 1991. I did hundreds of pieces for the show, at which point it turned into something else - and that's how I became a sculptor. Like most of my career, it was totally serendipitous."

Slides On File

The problems of shipping, installing, and even storing these extremely fragile pieces were not lost on Ms. Banks; her thoughts turned to working in a sturdier medium.

After the show, she sent copies of her slides to the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, which maintains a huge slide file called Percent for Art. A percentage of the cost of every public building must go to art; the file is for the perusal of architects and designers.

Inclusion also makes artists eligible for city-licensed artist-in-residence lofts, Ms. Banks's only, and quite ulterior, motive for registering.

When no affordable loft appeared, she forgot about the slides, went back to graphic designing by day, and began taking classes at Pratt Institute's School of Continuing Education at night.

The Art of Welding

"I signed up for the same courses every semester, Metalworking I and Metalworking II," she said.

"My teacher understood that you only need to learn what you want to know, so he taught me welding and let me use the facilities - the tanks and torches I was afraid of - in this big, safe room."

"I began drawing larger faces with heavier and heavier steel, and welding steel dogs, sculptures of Gus, my dog [a feisty smooth-haired fox terrier], and Benya, my husband's [a huge black Lab-Great Dane mix]."

Ms. Banks met her future husband, the poet Philip Schultz, in the dog run under her apartment window. They were married in January of 1995 and have a 5-month old son, Eli.

City Liked Her Design

Then, out of the blue, she got a call from the Department of Cultural Affairs about her slides, asking if she'd like to do a proposal for a permanent sculpture in a fairly public space.

It turned out to be the Times Square installation and, again quite serendipitously, she just happened to have the training to tackle such a monumental project. Her proposal was selected.

"I've been truly lucky," she said. "It's quite a jump from my little wire friends to the huge Times Square piece."

Ms. Banks was born in New York City in 1959 and moved to Short Hills, N. J., at age 7. Her father was a manufacturer, her mother a traditional sculptor who worked in stone.

Graphic Design

"The suburbs were dull," she said. "Shopping was the only culture, and I knew at an early age that I wanted to pursue art in some way."

After attending various summer camps and a summer session at the Rhode Island School of Design, she decided against art school in favor of a broader education at Vassar, where she took studio art classes but majored in philosophy.

"Out in the world, it became clear there were very few job openings for a 22-year-old philosopher from New Jersey," she said. "So I decided to exploit my art background."

An unpaid internship with the prominent graphic designer Milton Glaser led to a five-year job with his firm, after which Ms. Banks studied industrial design at the Domus Academy in Milan.

Still Personal

Recognizing that new car or chair styles were not on her creative agenda, she returned to New York to work as a freelancer for businesses and restaurants, drawing and doing her own art at home, and subconsciously preparing herself for her daunting public work.

"Every cliche about the actual installation of 'Faces' is true," she said. "It was thrilling. All the traffic was detoured, and six flatbed trucks and these huge cranes arrived. My heart stopped, watching this tremendous personal statement go up out there - it's such an honor."

"But the Times Square piece is really not so different from my earlier work, just bigger. It's still very personal. My friends' faces are in it, and Phil's, and Gus's and Benya's."

Faces Of The Square

"There's one of me getting ready to go to a party, and one of when I got there and saw the dreaded X, who's also in it. There's even one of how I look when I wake up in the middle of the night - I hope it's not sending anyone into therapy." Ms. Banks hung out in the area for weeks while working on her sculpture, studying the people going to the theater, the actors and waitresses and messengers and tourists and the down-and-out: all the faces of Times Square are in it.

"I wanted a big vocabulary, the range of humanity that passes through," she said. "Some are schematic and some cartoony. For me, it's like having friends in the neighborhood now, and I hope pedestrians will come to think of them that way, too."

What to do for an encore? "I'm a whole different person today," Ms. Banks said. "I'm a mother, and the sculptor who made 'Faces Times Square.' I think I'll take a year off to just experiment and have fun playing with metal. I feel a calmness now it would be nice to explore."