WILSON – George E. Banagis’ carefully detailed pen-and-ink drawings can transport the viewer to the wilderness or rural landscapes, and his playful children’s illustrations beckon admirers of all ages to join him for a romp through his colorful imagination.
And now his art is an invitation for a national audience to glimpse an important piece of Wilson’s history in the form of a small card to be distributed at national parks across the country.
The retired U.S. Army illustrator’s pen-and-ink drawing of local hero Luther Wilson adorns a small card created for the Niagara Falls National Heritage Area with the intent of wider distribution.
Set against the backdrop of the War of 1812, Banagis’ work illustrates the local legend of 15-year-old Luther as he rounded up 15 head of cattle and drove them eastward along Lake Ontario to escape the British invasion on the settlement that later became the Village of Wilson. Legend has it that Luther stuffed the cows’ bells with dry leaves to keep them from ringing and alerting the British soldiers as he walked them five miles east to safety.
A red-and-blue border frames the delicate black-and-white drawing of Luther stuffing one cow’s bell as another stands nearby among the trees. Luther is shown keeping an eye on four burning homes on the Lake Ontario shoreline and a ship at full sail on the lake. The card, printed on a light cardboard stock, measures two-and-a-half by three-and-a-half inches, the size of a sports trading card.
“I read the story, and I knew he stuffed the cow’s bells with leaves, and I just used my imagination for the drawing, for the character and everything,” Banagis said. “I know this will be at the national parks throughout the country, and it’s a big deal. The original was 20 inches by 24 inches. I usually like to work on about two-foot by three-foot (paper) because I can get so much more detail in when I work bigger.”
Wilson Mayor Bernard “Bernie” Leiker said, “This is very exciting for the village and for the whole area. Wilson will be represented throughout the nation now.”
Leiker said the idea sprang from a mayoral committee he formed to help advise him on a number of matters, including ways to improve the village. One of his committee members is Wilson resident Robert Kane, head of the history department at Niagara University, who linked Banagis, as the village’s chosen artist, with the project coordinators.
Leiker said he’s also thrilled for Banagis.
“He is now doing what he loves to do, and he’s getting recognized for it,” he said.
Leiker said Banagis is expected to present the village with a print of the drawing at the Village Board’s Jan. 16 meeting, to hang in Village Hall. The board, in turn, intends to honor Banagis at the same meeting. Leiker said the cards will be available at the Wilson Free Library.
Banagis, 63, is a native of Owosso, Mich., and a retired U.S. Army sergeant, first class. He said he didn’t have any real schooling in art as a youngster, but always liked to draw and left the U.S. Navy after a four-year stint. He earned an associate’s degree in art from Niagara County Community College, but said he is largely self-taught, and joined the Army in 1981.
He married his wife, Joyce, a Wilson native, in 1975, and the couple made Wilson their home base, even as they traveled the world with his Army career. They have three children, daughter Sarah Humphre and sons Thomas and William. Joyce, Sarah and Thomas opened Champion Graphics at 251 Young St., Wilson, one year ago.
The Banagis family lived in Germany and Korea, as well as four different cities stateside, before George’s retirement in 1995 and return to Wilson. He then went to work as a police officer at the U.S. Air Force Base in Niagara Falls, retiring from that job this past May.
It was then that he finally turned his attention to what he described as his “passion” and started entering local art shows, beginning with the Allentown Art Festival in June. He entered eight Western New York shows this year and took home “Best of Show” for a pen-and-ink drawing of an intricate tree at the Quaker Arts Festival in Orchard Park.
“I didn’t expect that,” he said of the huge trophy. “I had never won anything before. This is a real honor for a pen-and-ink artist to be competing against these beautiful, colorful paintings and sculptures.
“I had known for a while I wanted to do this,” Banagis added. “I am staying with the local shows for now, but might step out (farther) in time.”
He generally stocks a small gallery with his work at the family’s graphics shop, but he said he has temporarily moved his work to the Marjim Manor Winery, 7171 Lake Rd., Appleton. His work will be on display there until Jan. 15, including prints available for sale.
Banagis said he splits his time roughly evenly between pen-and-ink and children’s illustrations.
“It’s nice to go back and forth,” he said. “It’s nice to do the realism with the pen and ink, but the children’s illustrations are something from my imagination – I don’t use any references. It’s a lot harder in some ways, but something I really enjoy, and it’s neat to see little kids really enjoying it.”
As Banagis starts this new artistic career path, he admitted, “I’m new at all of this, and it’s all been a learning process. I hope I’ll double my business this next year. It will be interesting. This is a passion. I’m going to focus on area landmarks and animals in my pen-and-ink drawings – people like that. With a black-and-white drawing, it has to be something to catch your interest. You have to push the envelope.”
Banagis sells limited edition prints for his pen-and-ink drawings and children’s illustrations and he accepts commission work. To learn more, visit GBpenandink.com or call 698-8029.