First published: Winter 2017
Robert Bannister (1911–1996) had a deep interest in cosmic consciousness and psycho-cybernetics, areas of study he had explored via the piles of books and scientific journals collected in the small rented room he lived in near downtown Champaign, Illinois. When I first met him in 1975, he often told me he had a “cosmic awareness of human life”.
Born in Urbana, Illinois, Bannister was stricken by tuberculosis of the hip when he was six years old. His father died from complications of tuberculosis in 1917, and Robert and his mother were both admitted to Urbana’s Outlook Sanitarium. His mother died there in 1925. Young Robert continued to live there until he was 19 years old, then stayed with people he referred to as his “foster grandparents”. He suffered from anaemia and a poor diet, and was finally admitted to the Champaign County Nursing Home in the mid 1950s. During this stay at the nursing home, Bannister was first introduced to art tools through an occupational therapy programme. First attracted to woodcarving, Bannister later turned to drawing and painting.
Serious Concern, 1960s, ballpoint pen and coloured pencil on paper, 8.5 x 11 ins. / 21.6 x 27.9 cm
After his release in 1961, Bannister was left to live on his own. His impressions of the world around him were affected by the limits imposed by his disabilities and by his loneliness. His small room was one of a number that lined the back hallway of an apartment building. The rooms may have once been living space for building maintenance people or pensioners. There, Bannister’s social contact must have included encounters and possibly friendships with other tenants, but when I visited he was invariably alone, sitting in his chair. He had no help with cleaning or housekeeping, and the imprint of his movements between chair and bed were ghostly. Walls were veiled with cobwebs, and nicotine-stained dust bunnies draped over all surfaces.
Unable to walk without a cane, Bannister was visited regularly (but infrequently) by a Catholic charity, and once a year he was taken for a few days to a retreat in the country near St Louis. His only regular contact with the outside world was when he took his short walk to the lunch counter each day. He would greet and talk with the restaurant workers, and showed the roll of drawings that he carried in his coat to anyone who showed interest.
The inspiration for Bannister’s work came from a combination of sources. He collected magazines and books, including volumes on psycho-cybernetics, cosmic consciousness, human anatomy, and popular science and science fiction. Bannister used some of the techniques described in his books about psycho-Cybernetics to help organise his world and to find ways to overcome some of the limitations he was experiencing in life.