Binnie Birstein never just told a story. She brought it to life, eyes wide, arms gesturing in broad circles, often making her point with a slight stamp of her foot. Conversation as theater, never dull.
Those gestures were not unlike the markmaking in so many of her paintings and prints, which contained a whirlwind of circularity—big, expressionistic tornadoes and explosions of line set within a grid that barely contained them. Her last paintings were calmer, more mysterious, but I will always see Binnie in the grand gesture, effusive and expansive. --J.M.
Inset: What Lies Beneath: Pool, 2012, encaustic and mixed media on panel, 48 x 36 inches
Here's how some of her other friends remember her.
An inspiring mensch
One of Binnie's outstanding traits was her ability to talk to anyone and get a real conversation going pretty much instantly. It was always a real experience to go anywhere with Binnie because of the in-depth conversations she initiated on the subway, in an elevator, a restaurant, a gallery, or on the street. Her ability to connect with people spontaneously was unique. Binnie was genuinely interested in learning about people's interests, lives, and families. During our arting trips into Manhattan, these spontaneous conversations gave me the sense that New Yorkers were very chatty and friendly.
Nancy and Binnie at the Whitney in 2015
Binnie's interest in people also made her aware of those who needed help with directions or other assistance. Once on a Metro North trip to the city, we were among the last to disembark from a crowded train. A blind man was among those left in the car and Binnie asked if he needed help to get where he was going. He said he was meeting a friend in Grand Central Station, and Binnie offered her arm for him to take so she could guide him through the crowd. She chatted away with him while I followed behind until we reached his friend in the concourse.
Binnie's quality of being a mensch, a real human being, is what inspired so many of us to become committed to her care during her final, dreadful illness. The team of friends, many of us artists, was dedicated to sitting with her so that she wouldn't be alone when her children couldn't be there. After her passing, a smaller group of us, led by her mentee, Jen Greely, worked together to organize and document Binnie's life's work. Closely examining each piece, some of them dating back to Binnie's high school days, revealed how complex her work was and how committed Binnie was to making art. It was a bittersweet pleasure to engage in this last mission for our dear friend. --Nancy Natale
(You can read Nancy's interview with Binnie in the last issue of PWJ here)
Frankness, fun, and intelligence
Binnie and I would often meet at MOMA when I was visiting New York, and we would do epic days of gallery hopping. I would plan out the day's agenda like a military invasion, and Binnie would join me, game for adventure. We would talk shop and laugh. No subject was taboo or off limits. That was one of the many wonderful things about Binnie. You could talk to her about anything, and she would always tell you the truth.
Binnie with David on one of their art outings in New York City
On one notable trip we began the day at Jack Hanley Gallery which at that time was on the lower west side somewhere near the Holland Tunnel. Binnie and I had gone there to experience an interactive work that was a type of helmet that would merge our two faces. I'm not sure what the artist's intent was or their name, but the helmet combined my face with Binnie's, and we stood in this empty gallery, wearing this giant helmet, looking at our merged selves and giggling ourselves silly. When we took the helmet off Binnie said, "I don't need to see that again." That particular day ended with Binnie and me in the back of a cab, somewhere in Brooklyn, Binnie, shoes off, massaging her feet, begging me to stop the cab so we could buy bandaids and me chiding her for not having come prepared and telling her we didn't have time for first aid because we had 20 minutes to make it to our last gallery before it closed. On those days first aid mostly consisted of cocktails.
The last day I got to spend with Binnie we did MOMA and then crisscrossed Chelsea stopping for a late lunch at Trestle on 10th Avenue. Binnie was in a lot of pain then. She still didn't know she had cancer. (The diagnosis would come a few weeks later.) I will forever remember that day and all of the memorable days I got to spend with her. I will miss her frankness, her sense of fun, her laugh and her keen intelligence. She lit the world while she was in it. --David A. Clark
Traveling with BinnieIn 2014 Binnie and I joined up with a bunch of artist friends in Chicago and enjoyed a wonderful few days of taking in art. Here we are with Jane Guthridge and Pamela Wallace at the Anish Kapoor Cloudgate sculpture in Millennium Park.
Shooting their reflections on the Cloudgate sculpture: Pamela, Jane, Binnie, and Lynette
The last fun adventure I had with Binnie was in 2016. I stayed at the B2 BnB (Binnie’s house in Norwalk, Connecticut). The following day we went to New York City and visited the Guggenheim to see an Agnes Martin show and lots of galleries. Binnie insisted on driving so we could take in as much as possible. As always, she took pride in being a native New Yorker and toured me around her favorite spots. We had a marathon city sweep and really enjoyed the Martin work. --Lynette Haggard
Honesty and ice cream
Two things stand out in my mind as classic Binnie stories. One is an example of her straightforward, no-nonsense honesty, the other, her love of ice cream.
In 2012, while still living in Virginia, I drove to Connecticut for an opening that included several artists using encaustic. Binnie invited me to stay overnight with her and Lynette Haggard, who also had work in the show. While sitting around in our PJ’s, I proudly showed them some new promotional materials recently received from the printer. Binnie looked me straight in the eye and said, ”May I be your friend?” When I replied affirmatively, she said, “These are way too dark.” The exchange opened my eyes to the fact that all of my photo images were too dark. Thank you, Binnie. I have spoken with others who also had their vision expanded in helpful and positive ways by Binnie’s caring critical eye.
Pamela and Binnie at Binnie's show in Connecticut
After that, shortly after my move to Kingston, Howard Hersh had a well-attended opening in the Gallery at R&F Paints. Binnie was one of three artists spending the night at my home post opening. Joanne Mattera was joining us for a few hours of camaraderie, and asked for directions. As I was driving home to meet everyone and let them in, Binnie requested a diversion to the nearest grocery store for ice cream. I expressed concern about making people wait in my driveway, to which Binnie replied, “Don’t worry, they will understand.” As far as I know, everyone did. As a thank you and housewarming gift, Binnie sent me an ice cream scoop, declaring it was a kitchen essential. Also included was one of her small works in encaustic. I treasure both. --Pamela W. Wallace
Generosity, positivity, style, lipstick . . . and art
Binnie was a force of nature. Every time I saw her, I was struck by her sense of living life to the fullest. She had an irrepressible sense of humor. was intelligent, creative, curious. adventurous and lively. All of these qualities combined to make her a good person and a good painter. It’s also important to note that Binnie had style! Her hair, makeup, clothes - she always looked fabulous. And her appearance matched the energy of her personality!--Cat Crotchett
I did not know Binnie well but do have very fond memories of a group trip a bunch of us took to Chicago where her ebullient humor stood out. She was a warm, funny, big presence and I wish I had been able to know her better. --Leslie Sobel
I didn't know Binnie well personally since I only saw her at the conferences. I do know of her generosity, her commitment to her craft and art through the many comments made by people she taught or knew well. I also know how much her positivity and great big smile affected me. I will miss that smile. --Cheryl D. McClure
I didn’t know Binnie really. But we always smiled a hello to each other at the conference, and she had such a memorable beautiful smile. –Nancy Azara
How can I miss someone I never got a chance to know really well? Binnie seemed to light up a room anytime I saw her, which was only at maybe four International Encaustic Conferences. We had brief conversations, but I was always captivated by her well-informed opinions and salty observations. Not to mention her gorgeous big grey and white hair, highlighted by her bright lipstick. Damn. There was a woman to be reckoned with. And I can't believe my luck in purchasing one of Binnie's fave paintings the last time I saw her. I am humbled and awed that I have that piece to look at everyday. Binnie's art will live on in my family collection and her memory will reside in my heart.--Karen Hubacher
Mentor and Friend
In the grand scheme of life and painting and conferences I knew Binnie a comparatively short time—just eight hundred fifty two days from the day I approached her at a Westport Arts Center show, Dreamscapes, to the day she died. Yet in that short time, we fostered a relationship that encompassed everything from student, studio assistant, “arting” companion, parenting advisor, business consultant, and critic. We often used different words to describe our relationship to others, but somehow settled together on Mentor and Friend.
A mentor in every sense of the word, Binnie introduced me to the Larger Art World, the one that exists beyond the safe boundaries of my studio and my community. She took me to art openings in Connecticut and New York, opening those metaphoric doors wider than I thought possible. Her sharp wit and critical eye meant that the feedback she gave on my work was rawly honest (sometimes stingingly so) and she sparked—and then fueled—an inner drive I didn’t know was possible. When I first asked for her to review my work, I braced myself for a blunt summary and was not disappointed when Binnie delivered: “Well, your paintings are nicely done. They’re pretty and will sell. They look like something you would find at Home Goods.” She was right. And I thank my lucky stars every day that with such a simple assessment I was spurred to ask the bigger questions every artist worth their paint must ask: Why am I making this? What is the work doing in the world? What does the work say? Over and over I heard Binnie’s words in my ear: “Just do the work. You’ll figure it out.” About a year later I figured I was on the right path when I overheard Binnie talking about me to another artist. “She can paint like a mother***er” might be the highest praise I’ve ever received.
Before Binnie became sick, I worked informally as her studio assistant, trading assistance in the studio for technique consultations and instruction when I ran into problems. But in working for her, she always gave far more than she got. I was privileged to have that intimate glimpse into the hidden, everyday life of an artist. She gave generously of herself, answering questions with patience and honesty, letting me watch the mysterious creative process unfold as she either brazenly laid a wash of paint or struggled with a next step.
Jen and Binnie on Match Day, when Binnie's daughter, Sam, would learn where she was to do her residency. "She was so happy to be there," says Jen. (By spring, Binnie was not sure how much more time she would have.)
In addition to her creative workings, she laid bare the inner workings of a studio: the mundane, the political, the business, the mistakes turned brilliance. She took me along to meet gallerists and old friends, to show me what a “real” opening looks like, and, when not sharing parenting tips and tricks to go along with stories of her life and children, she spent the time in the car filling my brain with tidbits of art goings-on. Wherever we might be looking at art, she gave succinct critiques of artwork as we walked past, sometimes leaving me in her wake trying to keep up, physically and mentally.
This past year as Binnie became sick, our art-centric relationship evolved into a close friendship, and Binnie mentored me in other ways, more often through example rather than lesson. The life lessons kept up through her last days—of being vulnerable, and honest, and generous, of accepting help with grace, and never ever forgetting to appreciate a good quip. And not only telling others that you love them (because it might be the last time you get to say it), but of letting others love you with abandon. --Jen Greely