University of Texas at San Antonio prof finds lost treasure by African American artist at thrift store

The painting by Keith Bankston has since been donated to the Tubman African American Museum in Macon, Georgia.

click to enlarge University of Texas at San Antonio prof finds lost treasure by African American artist at thrift store
Shea Oconnor/ UTSA Today

A University of Texas at San Antonio professor scored a rare painting by a celebrated African American artist while thrift shopping in Macon, Georgia, according to school officials.

William Pugh, an assistant professor for UTSA's Department of Information Systems and Cyber Security, has since donated the piece — which he bought for $125 — to an art museum in Georgia, where it will be put on display.

Pugh told his employer's USTA Today blog the image of a serpent wrapped around the body of the biblical character Eve initially drew him to the painting. However, he also took note of the clear blue signature on its lower right-hand corner.

The signature was that of African American artist Keith Bankston.

One of the artist's earlier works, the painting titled Eve in the Rose Garden, circa 1982, portrays an encounter that led to Adam and Eve being banished from the Garden of Eden. An undergraduate history major, Pugh was drawn to the painting's biblical themes and Bankston's attention to folkloric detail.

"It's not necessarily mentioned in the Bible, but there are legends and stories that say that before Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden of Eden, roses didn't have thorns," Pugh told UTSA Today. "He depicts that perspective in this painting."

Bankston's burgeoning art career was cut short after he died in 1992. He was 34.

Pugh discovered that multiple Bankston paintings were on display at the Tubman African American Museum in Macon and immediately inquired about donating the thrift store treasure.

"Keith Bankston is a beloved figure in the art community in Macon. His story is a kind of tragic tale of what could have been — of great potential that was never fully realized due to the AIDS epidemic." Jeff Bruce, the director of exhibitions at the Tubman Museum told UTSA Today. "His light was just beginning to shine, so we honor the promise of his talent by collecting and exhibiting his work, and by sharing the story of his short but impactful career with young people in Middle Georgia, as well as visitors from across the country."

Bruce told the blog he was happy to accept Pugh's gift, and the painting arrived at the Tubman Museum on July 20. And although the value of the painting is likely far greater than the meager price Pugh paid, the professor believes he made the right decision.

"Even if it's worth substantially more, I've always had the inclination that I wanted to donate it," Pugh said. "The Tubman Museum in Macon is the perfect place for it."

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