with Binnie Birstein
By Nancy Natale
Binnie Birstein, September 2009, in Ancient Medium, N.E.W. Terrain, the Art Complex
Museum, Duxbury, Massachusetts. Her painting is The Fence, 2008, diptych, encaustic
on panels, 48 x 58 inches
I met Binnie Birstein about a dozen years ago at a New
England Wax meeting in Boston's South End. NEW was founded by a group of
artists who painted with encaustic and wanted to network, share information,
and organize shows of our work. Many, if not most, of us were practicing
artists who were new to the medium. Binnie and I became friends although we
lived a couple of hours away from each other.
In those pre-Facebook, pre-Conference days networking was difficult. Other than workshops run by R&F Paints, there were few opportunities to learn more and see how other artists were using encaustic. Binnie and I were both at that first conference in Beverly and continued to attend for 11 consecutive years through 2017. Once the conference moved to Provincetown in 2011, we were roommates in a Breakwater room at the Provincetown Inn each year until 2015, when we began renting a suite with Susan Lasch Krevitt. We jokingly called ourselves The Three Queens.
NN and BB on a very bright day at the Whitney Museum, 2015
Together and sometimes with a couple of other friends, Binnie and I made numerous trips to New York City for what we called "arting," visiting as many galleries, museums, and exhibitions as possible in a limited time. Binnie was relentless in completing the list that I had drawn up, despite weather, exhaustion, or my tantrums. She generously put me up at "Hotel Binnie," her home in Connecticut whenever I visited. Those were great adventures with lots of laughs, good food, and art investigations.
Binnie with a Leonardo Drew work at Sikkema Jenkins Gallery in Chelsea, 2010. On this arting trip we braved 17 inches of snow that had fallen that morning on Manhattan
Our arting trips came to an end when Binnie was diagnosed last August with inoperable pancreatic cancer. She began four months of chemotherapy that weakened her but did not shrink the tumor. The severity of treatment caused pain, exhaustion, and drastic weight loss so that she has been mostly confined to bed. She has been supported through her illness by her daughter, Sam Yarmis, who is scheduled to graduate from medical school in May 2018, and by a large group of friends—mostly women who are artists—who have been care sitting with her at home so that she has never been alone. (Binnie's son, Ben Yarmis, who lives in Texas, has been able to work from Connecticut for several weeks at a time to be with his mother.)
Binnie Birstein, Compound II, 2018; joint compound, gesso, encaustic, oil, silkscreen on washi; 36 x 24 inches
Photo: Elisa Keogh
Photo: Elisa Keogh
Despite her ill health, Binnie was determined to complete a second large painting to submit for Organic to Geometric, curated by Carol Pelletier and scheduled for this summer at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum. Although only one painting could be chosen for inclusion in the show, Binnie's finished painting, Compound II, is shown here and in the dedication to Binnie that closes the exhibition catalog.
I interviewed Binnie at her home in Norwalk at the end of December and asked her about her life as an artist.
Binnie speaking about her work at the Westport Arts Center, Westport, Connecticut, in January 2017
Photo: Jen Greely
Photo: Jen Greely
NN: Did you always want to be an artist?
BB: When I grew up, I knew you could be a nurse, a teacher, or a secretary. I didn't want to be a nurse. I also didn't want to be a secretary because my mother was one and always came home hating her job. But I didn't know that you could be an artist. This was just at the cusp of the women's movement--not that I was active--but the liberation ideas were just beginning to be discussed. I graduated early from high school in 1970. I was looking at all the art schools and applied to some, but I thought that I needed to be able to do something that I could "fall back on," so I became an art teacher.
NN: What school did you go to in undergrad?
BB: I went away to the University of the Americas in Mexico City. I was there for spring quarter. I had a great time but knew it wasn't where I should be spending four years, so I left. That summer I worked as a counselor at a sleep-away camp, and then I got a job working at the color print shop at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They used to have books of Italian prints and sold art prints. It was great to be able to work there when the museum was not open to the public. I was able to walk through the museum with no one there. I found it very exciting! I worked there for two and a half years, first full time and then part time.
Continuing with my education, I got accepted to Pratt, part scholarship and part tuition. I was petrified by the amount of money I or my father would have to pay for tuition, so instead of Pratt I went to City College of New York (CCNY) in Manhattan for free and was an art education/psychology major. I was going to do art therapy.
Left: Orbit, 2011; encaustic, ink, oilstick on panel, 20 x 20 inches
Right: Nightclub Flyers, 2011; encaustic, ink on panel, 15 x 15 inches
I was there for four years and although I was concentrating on learning what I needed to become a teacher, I became known as the "art star," without my awareness. At graduation there was an awards ceremony and no one told me in advance that I was going to get the top prize—maybe $500 or some cash award like that. It was an honor, but those things don't pay the rent! [Note: Binnie graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa.]
NN: What was next?
BB: I didn't have a problem getting a job teaching at the K-12 level and worked toward my Master's part time. I got married right after graduation to my first husband and got a job in Lexington, South Carolina. He was going to grad school in microbiology there, and I was supporting the two of us. It was supposed to be two years, but it ended up being three. I was the only Jewish person. I asked the school superintendent, "What are we going to do about the high holidays coming up?" and I showed him on the calendar when they were.' He said, "I don't rightly know. You're the only one we've got."' I don't know if this experience made me a better artist, but it sure gave me a lot of material!
My husband got a job in Rochester, New York, and we moved there. I got a teaching job pretty easily. I enjoyed teaching although it was exhausting. I found great joy in sharing my passion in painting and drawing. I've always liked teaching and have continued with that by teaching workshops to adults. I was there 12 years. We got divorced somewhere during that time but we didn't have children. I stayed on afterwards because my friends and connections were there.
Above: Tangle, 2010, encaustic on panel, 20 x 30 inches
Below: Unfathomable, 2010, encaustic on panel, 20 x 30 inches
NN: What took you away from Rochester?
BB: Love. I met Jonathan, my second husband. His stepmother and my mother were really good friends and had been trying to put us together for years. I told him I wanted to stay home and have babies without trying to impress him. He liked that idea.
He had a great job and traveled all over. I was able to go with him because we were just renting an apartment. We moved to Connecticut—Norwalk first, then Fairfield, and then Weston. We were married in 1989 and Ben, my first child, was born in 1991. Sam, my daughter, came in 1994. We were married more than 20 years before divorcing.
What Lies Beneath: Pool, 2012; encaustic, ink, graphite on panel, 48 x 36 inches
NN: Did you work at home when you had the kids?
BB: When we bought a house, I had a studio in it. I had to give up oil because I was having a reaction to solvents. I started painting in acrylic on canvas. I always worked out of my house in an extra bedroom or an attic.
NN: What about when the kids came?
BB: I had what I thought of as an open studio for the kids. They painted or played while I was in the studio and my husband helped with them on the weekends. Once they were in nursery school and kindergarten, I had a lot of free time.
Left: Save the Party, 1988-89, acrylic with Caran d'Arce on canvas, 18 x 18 inches
Right: Up/Down, 2014 encaustic, monotype on panel, 8 x 10 inches
NN: What is the object of this composition? (I am looking at Save The Party in Binnie's dining room)
BB: Apparently it's "my shape." It's an off-angle that might be floating or falling or that could be seen as being protective. The off-angle relates to the edges of the painting—where the lines hit the edges—rather than making a shape. I've been doing those lines for a very long time, going back to 1987 or '88 or '89.
NN: Are you thinking of that shape as part of a rectangle or as space?
BB: Yes! In some places it's a shape and in other places it could just be linear or it could be a tabletop or you could be looking off into the distance. I like the ambivalence.
When you're painting, you're not particularly thinking of intention per se, like space or an object.
The box/grid thing is the organization but also represents me, personally, being put into a box. The gridlines—I would do them differently and then play off with more gestural marks. It was all about working in response to a grid, so I was thinking about a lot of limitations or categories for myself, like "just a mom" or something.
NN: And that's where the off-angle came from?
BB: From not fitting in, out of a large level of discomfort. It's that angle where the door is not quite closed, something is not right. That has been in my work for a long time. I read it as a line or as a shape, but I never thought about it like that before today. I realize it stems from a feeling I have, but that's not what I'm thinking about when I'm painting. It just seems to belong there and I recognize that angle in other peoples' work. I only saw it consciously when I saw a lot of my work together.
NN: You're relating it to you personally?
BB: Yes, but not that specifically as referring to a particular event or memory.
Abandoned, 2010, encaustic on panel, 20 x 30 inches
NN: When did you begin working with encaustic?
BB: Sam was probably in kindergarten—about 1999. I had just been introduced to the Center for Contemporary Printmaking (CCP) in Norwalk and was working with oil-based monotypes. You can work out a lot of ideas with those.
I did the Monothon at CCP and then signed up for classes. Laura Moriarty was substitute teaching for a class I was taking there, and then she taught a class in encaustic. I wound up taking encaustic painting with her twice, in 1999 or 2000. I loved the layers in encaustic and that I didn't have to wait for drying time. I loved its translucency.
The difference between painting with encaustic or acrylic was what I really liked. I think good work always has energy. It doesn't have to be dependent on the medium.
NN: You also continued to do printmaking throughout the years and got into encaustic collagraph, correct?
BB: You get a lot of bang for your buck in printmaking. When I'm doing printmaking, I'm thinking the same way as in painting. I had seen encaustic collagraph online but I figured out how to make it work. I can get that painterly line with collagraph but the images are repetitive. I started printing with oil and then switched to water-based Akua ink with collagraph.
Binnie with silkscreen and encaustic work, early 2017
Photo: Jen Greely
Photo: Jen Greely
NN: Is the newest element in your work silk screening on encaustic?
BB: I don't know that it's an element. It's another tool. I took that silk screening workshop with Jeff Hirst at CCP. It was the best!
I realize that if you look at my work from the '80s until now, it's the same painting. It is and it isn't. That structure is really important to me. I took the silkscreen class because I knew I was painting the same thing over and over. I thought, why don't I find a way to repeat it? It's not a complicated technique, but it offers me more options in how I'm going to do my painting. Layers are important to me--like layers in a day or something like that.
I don't think the pool is the swimming pool. It's the cesspool, the steno pool, the gene pool, the whole thing. I'm not thinking structure or energy. I'm thinking of my other word games.
NN: What about the dichotomy in your work, the way it can be interpreted in various ways? In your statement you describe "the feeling of dichotomy and a dreamlike dissonance with a sense of mystery."
Binnie at A Wrinkle In Time, her solo show at ArtPlace, Fairfield, Connecticut, 2010
BB: My series with the flying/falling figures made it more literal. That disturbed a lot of people. The show I did with that series, A Wrinkle in Time, was a really good show. I had those paintings and the prickly balls, with asphalt from the driveway, barbed wire, and netting.
The Menace/Rescue paintings could be interpreted either way depending on your perspective. How to interpret that figure above? When I did that work, it was before Trump but that feeling…
Intrepid from the Menace/Rescue Series, 2008, 48 x 58 inches
NN: Do you consider yourself successful as an artist?
BB: Yeah, I do. Even though I don't sell a lot. People think that you're successful if you have a studio, you teach, you sell your work. There are all different ways to define "successful." Some people think you're only successful if you sell your work, others if you show it, others if you get commissions.
NN: What about keeping at it, continuing to work? What makes you go to the studio and make another painting?
BB: That's how I communicate. I hate writing. I don't talk a lot—despite what my friends say!
If I was looking at me, not knowing me, it looks like I'm successful and I just had all these shows.
I'm not out of ideas, I'm still painting, I need the time. I've got the ideas. I'm not afraid of staring at a blank panel. I think it's important not to listen to too many people. You can't look enough, but when you start looking and you don't edit or anything….
NN: Now I have to ask you the last questions. What happened when your career was cut short by your illness?
BB: Things were going well for me last summer with several shows and interest in my work, but then everything got short circuited. I wasn’t feeling well so I put things off, waiting until I had more energy, but the energy never came. Now my energy depends on the day and the time of day. I want to get to the studio again but I just have to do it when I can.
NN: Do you think you are leaving a legacy?
BB: I don't think anyone sets out to leave a legacy. It's not something that you seek to leave behind because you are concentrating on going forward. I can't quantify any of this because I had no idea any of it was coming.
I always thought my work would be my legacy, but when I think about it more deeply, I realize that my children are my greatest legacy--and my students. I have always been passionate about making art and I wanted to pass on that passion and energy to my students. Lately I've been getting notes and letters from former students saying how much my teaching meant to them, even students that I taught in high school. That's something I didn't expect.
Binnie in her studio, December 2017, surrounded by her work
Photo: Jen Greely
Photo: Jen Greely