Maple Leaf Rag

Scott Joplin (ca. 1868–1917) and Ellen Banks (1938-2017), Maple Leaf Rag (Atlanta: Nexus Press, 1988). One folded sheet; 35 cm in case 46 cm. Graphic Arts Collection GAX 2020- in process

Photo by Kalman Zabarsky for Boston University


After seeing her work, no one would be surprised to learn that one of Ellen Banks’ earliest influences was Piet Mondrian. In his essay, “Ellen Banks: The Geometries of the Score,” Graham Lock notes that she “paints nothing but music—not as heard but taken directly from the score and transformed, via a system of personal symbolism, into colors and shapes: ‘Music is my still life, my landscape, my nude.’ Banks is unique … in taking music as the sole subject of her art. Her approach is highly unusual too: her canvases are based not on the sound or performance of music but on musical scores.”

Although primarily a painter, Banks editioned this artists’ book [above] transferring her understanding of Scott Joplin’s notation into color and pattern. It is her visualization of sound in shape and embodiment of tone in hue.

Last two verses of The Maple Leaf Rag
Composition by Scott Joplin 1899; Lyrics by Sydney Brown 1903

The men were struck wit’ jealousy, the razors ‘gan to flash
But de ladies gathered ’round me for I’d surely made a mash
The finest belle, she sent a boy to call a coach and four
We rode around a season ’till we both were lost to reason

Oh go ‘way man, I can hypnotize this nation
I can shake the earth’s foundation wit’ the Maple Leaf Rag
Oh go ‘way man, just hold you breath a minute
For there’s not a stunt that’s in it with the Maple Leaf Rag