Beloved Campus Landmark Celebrates a Big Birthday

  • John Banks sits in front of a large outdoor sculpture that spells out

    CSUN Alumnus John Banks with his award-winning design for the CSUN sign in 2023. Photo by Lee Choo.

Alumnus Reflects on His Winning Design for the CSUN Sculpture

When John Banks ’72 (Art), M.A. ’94 (Three-Dimensional Art) left CSUN with a bachelor’s degree, he already had an impressive commission on his resume. In 1972, Banks had entered the university’s art competition to design a new sign for the newly named California State University, Northridge (formerly San Fernando Valley State College). In 1973, Banks was announced as the winner and he spent the next year raising money and in-kind donations to create the large, tubular sign at the corner of Nordhoff Street and Zelzah Avenue that spells out “CSUN” and can be read from different directions. This year marks half a century since Banks’ winning design, the birth of a sculpture that became one of the Valley’s most iconic landmarks.

“The CSUN sign was my first monumental sculpture, completed in 1975,” Banks said. “It inspired me to continue as an artist, but it soon became apparent to me that selling monumental sculptures was not an easy career.”

The early 1970s, when Banks graduated with his art degree, was a tough time to be looking for work. The United States was slogging through a deep recession and gas shortage. Despite his love for sculpting, Banks decided to pursue a more stable career. He applied for and took required tests for jobs with fire departments in California and Nevada, eventually landing in Las Vegas. He loved his career as a first responder, one that spanned 30 years. And it turned out that he could have the best of both worlds.

“I still was an artist with ideas that needed to be explored,” Banks said. “The CSUN Sculpture did launch my career in art because now, I have sculptures and public art in 38 cities in eight states.”

Banks’ public work includes the Firefighters’ Memorial of Southern Nevada. He’s worked in a variety of media, including bronze, aluminum, wood, steel, fiberglass and cement.

These days, Banks is enjoying retirement. He travels to Southern California frequently, spending days out on the water spearfishing and scuba diving from a boat he co-owns with a friend. He keeps an eye on his first large-scale project — he approves of the sculpture’s recent fresh coat of paint. On a visit earlier this year, Banks talked with CSUN Today about the work that went into the project. Here are some excerpts from the interview.

On winning the competition for the new CSUN artwork in 1973: 

“That was great news, but there was no financial obligation for the university to fund the design. So, I spent the next year-and-a-half raising $8,000 for the project.”

On the sculpture’s construction: 

“The CSUN Sculpture structure is called Ferro-cement. A steel framework covered with a cement coating has been used in building construction and even shipbuilding. Sylmar-based Superior Gunite donated their services in applying the concrete surface. The CSUN building maintenance department helped during the construction, with excavation and cleanup. A dear lady who helped me tremendously with the red tape, business procedures, publicity and more was staff member Ollie Stevener. Fellow art students helped in the construction. The Sculpture Department faculty — John Canavier, Bob Bassler and Dave Elder — were essential in helping the project run smoothly.”

On studying art at CSUN: 

“The Halstead sculpture lab [Halstead Art Annex] was surrounded by orange orchards, away from the main center of campus. It was a comfortable environment of artists sharing ideas and working together in harmony. It was like an oasis apart from the main academic establishment.”

On completing his bachelor’s: 

“This was a time in my life that I was living in poverty but knew that college was making a difference in my future. I worked my way through college in a bronze-casting foundry, laying carpet and taking on any part-time job I could find. This saved me from taking out a student loan. My last years on campus were the best because I was a part-time faculty teaching assistant at the sculpture lab. I had keys to the building and could work after business hours any time I desired.”

On life after CSUN and creating the CSUN Sculpture: 

“This was a learning experience for me that changed my life. It led me into a job as a foreman in a steel fabricating company and eventually the fire service. There, I not only created sculptures but built houses and secured my financial future.”

As it turns out, the CSUN sign isn’t the only sculpture by John Banks on campus. He recently donated a (much smaller!) piece to the University Library that will be displayed to the public. “Monument to the Moon Landing” is another multi-image piece that he created in 1975 while pursuing his master’s degree.

To learn more about CSUN’s Department of Art and the Mike Curb College of Arts, Media and Communication, please visit their websites.

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