Creators, Makers, and Doers: Chris Binion
Posted on 9/14/16 by Arts & History
Chris Binion vacillates between creating tight, detailed watercolor still life works to loose and wild, large-scale oil paintings, to seemingly empty fields of color. Most recently, the Boise sky, atmosphere, and environment inspires Chris’s work. But he feels conflicted about the lack of opportunities for collegial critiquing of each other’s work as well as venues to show it.
Can you start by describing your art practice?
I mainly do watercolors. For years, when I really started painting, I guess you’d say “professionally” in quotes, I started in still-life watercolors, very detailed, still lifes. After about fifteen years, I got into oils a little bit. I went back into watercolors because I felt like what I wanted to paint had to be in watercolors. I’ve recently done some more oils, mainly because I wanted to do some landscapes and I have not been happy with my watercolor landscapes and I wanted to paint bigger pieces, and it was just pretty hard to find watercolor paper as big as I wanted to paint. So, right now, I am working again in watercolor. I’ve gone from detailed pieces all the way to now, I’m doing really abstract or very minimalist watercolors. Mainly I’ve been trying to paint air or sky, colors that I perceive or moods that I perceive in our skies here in Boise.
What is that you like about watercolor?
You know, there’s no fumes and it’s easy to clean up, because I’m kind of messy. I also find it really, really challenging and I spend a lot of time studying watercolors, studying how different brands work, how different colors are either transparent or not, and how you can control that or how you can screw everything up if you aren’t paying attention. I like that challenge. You would look at my work and think that I’m a very detailed person and very persnickety, but I’m not, and it’s going against my grain in a way, which I find challenging to focus and really pay attention to what I’m doing. Even when I was painting watercolors early on, I was doing a lot of flowers, because they’re mostly water, it just lent itself, not to the transparency, but… almost a wet feeling that was just inherent in the medium itself. Also, I was very influenced by a teacher—when I was living in Tulsa, Oklahoma, before I moved up here—P.S. Gordon, and he did these incredible, detailed watercolors that inspired me to try to do those. So, that’s what he was using. That was his medium also.
What initiated the change from detailed still lives to your now, minimal and abstract works?
Well, the first move was from a watercolor I did. I thought, “This is the last one. I’ve done it. I’ve painted everything in my studio at least three times.” I couldn’t think of another idea. And it may have been just a dry spot, because I do have those. But I thought, “Oh, I think I’ll do oils.” I had a big studio at the time down in Old Boise, and I wanted to do something really loose and just really let it go. Because you have to paint flat in watercolor, if you’re humped over a board all day long, it gets kind of tiring because, you’re just focused on this twenty-two-by-thirty sheet of paper. So, I went out and bought some big canvases and did a whole series of chairs and they were really loose, gestural, and wild. Then, I went to some huge flowers and fruits and stuff. It was about letting off steam because I didn’t do it for long, maybe three years. I found some peonies one day, the single, five-pedaled Japanese peonies—and I said, “Oh, I’ve got to paint these,” and the only way I could paint them was to paint them in watercolor and do a still-life. That kind of got me hooked again, back into watercolors. Switching over to the oils, it was just really this unfulfilled thing because I wanted to paint some landscapes. I love the landscapes around here—the mountains, the hills, and also the skies, too. It really challenged me to the point where I invested in oils again. I’d already given away my easel; I had a great easel. I’d gotten rid of all my oil paints and I had to start over again. I’m really glad I did it, because I have to respond to that every once in a while. Otherwise, it just eats at me.
Are you working in the studio full-time now?
I’ve never really been a full-time painter. When I started painting, I had a restaurant that I was running, so I would carve out some time. I was actually more dedicated to art then. I was younger and I had more energy. I had businesses I started—I was one of the founders of Moxie Java—so I had these businesses that, when we sold, it… gave me an income that I could then have a studio and show up in a studio rather than painting at night, which is what I had been doing. But, there’s drying time and I usually can handle one idea at a time. I’m not a painter that can have five paintings going at once, or I just can’t sit in the studio for hours waiting for something to dry. Even a watercolor. Those washes take two to three hours to dry almost, to be dry enough before you can put another wash on. So, I just walk off and leave it. But I always remember the year or the time when I wrote on my income tax return, when I put “artist” down, it was really a kind of a big deal for me to actually claim that that’s what I was. I don’t spend twelve hours a day here. I don’t even spend four sometimes, or three. But I’m never, it seems, not thinking about it. Or there’s something going through my head about it. I have other interests, too, that kind of keeps me away from this. My husband and I have apartments that we are managing. There’s other things that kind of keep me from this. But this is really my priority, too.
What does your time in the studio look like? Is there an ideal time in the studio?
Ideal time is when I come in and there’s something started. Getting started is hard. If there’s something started when I walk in, I immediately know what I’m going to do next. Or, within minutes, I know, “Okay, this is what I’m going to do next on this piece.” Ideally, it’s something that I can keep working on and it keeps evolving as I go. That really happened more when I was doing the oils because it’s pretty forgiving. I mean, you can keep working on it and if it’s not right, you can scrape it off and you can keep going. With watercolors, it’s not very forgiving. I did enjoy that part of oil painting, in that I could work on things a little bit longer. But, I also realize that the way I like to paint oils, I still need some drying time in between. When it’s working, it’s working.
The piece that is in the Council Chambers, for instance, I worried about that. I had that canvas made and I kept looking at it, thinking, “Oh, God, that’s going to be so hard, it’s going to be so hard.” I didn’t have a place to work on it, because it wouldn’t fit in here. I had to use John’s studio back there. He made the canvas and he said I could paint it out there. I thought, “Oh, God, I’m going to be on top of him for three weeks trying to do this piece.” And, I said, “Okay, but I’ve got to go do it, because I’ve got a show coming up and this is the big piece for the show.” And I went in, and in two days almost—everything I did was the right thing, and—it just came out. So, that’s my ideal day. But you don’t get those very often. Those are real rare. An ideal day may be coming up with an idea that I can actually execute. I’ve got a drawer full of ideas. They’re sketches or they’re little notes and stuff like that that I think might be a good thing, but they all have dead ends to them somehow.
But when you can come in and have an idea and get on with it, that’s a great day. I wish I could say I could do that every day. I wish I could say that I could that once a week. But I can’t. I’ve been working with art all my life, real seriously working at it for a long time. It’s almost gotten harder to come up with the next thing, which I’m hoping this is just a dry period. I have them and I think all artists do have dry periods, where you just don’t like anything you’re doing or you feel like this is stupid. But, I feel like I have a reputation, too, and an obligation to myself to put out good work. I can’t just do anything. It has to resonate with me and I want it to resonate with other people. That’s why I quit doing the traditional still lifes. I felt like they were becoming still, too still. I hope it’s not my age, because this is something I want to do till I drop over, and it’s often something, if you’re an artist, you can do. So, you can figure out some way of painting or making your art.
Where do you find opportunities to show your work or get it out to the public?
Well, that is a problem now. Three years ago, I was with nine other artists that started Enso Artspace over in Garden City, but July a year ago I had my last show. It was also the last show of Enso because we were down to about five artists. People left, moved out of town… left for many reasons. It really wasn’t the kind of group that you can just add people to, because we’d become really close. We had camaraderie, so, when that diluted, we really just couldn’t afford to keep it open.
I also showed with Jacque Crist for years, and I was really spoiled by her, how she developed me, developed my career, and supported me. She could be brutal talking about, you know, “This is not working, this is not you,” and critiquing me. That really helped. But, I don’t feel like there’s a gallery in town now. There’s cooperatives and stuff, but you don’t get that brutal honesty from your peers because they’re afraid they’d get it back. I really don’t have a place to show. In fact, I started doing these real small pieces, because I was running out of room. I’ve got this garage over here full of paintings and my flat files are full of paintings, so I thought, “Well, I’ll just paint small things.” I keep thinking, “Well, something will show up, something will happen,” and there are a couple of things that I’ve heard about. But, I’m the type of person, I have to have a show before I’ll show my work. I like to paint bodies of work. I like to paint in series. So, until I have that or have enough of it, then I don’t have the real drive to show. I like to show my work. It’s very, very exciting. It’s also, of course, dangerous. But I like for people to see my work and respond to it. The work I’m doing now, too, I feel like is not the work that would be that accepted in Boise. I think that, if I were still doing realism or landscapes, I’d probably have a better chance of selling something. I think it’s hard.
Why do you think that is?
Well, I don’t know. It could be that how can anybody respond to a sheet of blue? Friends of mine that do paint minimalism, it just doesn’t sell in Boise. It doesn’t happen. I think that there’s not a place to see stuff like that. There’s the museum, but don’t know if it’s ever had a minimalist show. Well, the last one probably was Andrea Merrell, who was in Enso with me, she had a show about seven or eight years ago. But as a normal, somebody big having a show, a traveling show of minimalist work, you never see that here. People with homes, they don’t buy that. They want to buy a landscape, they want to buy a pretty picture, or they’ll buy an abstract. Maybe it’s just too cerebral or something. Maybe it’s navel-gazing for the artist completely. It’s strange. Well, it’s not strange; it’s probably Boise. We are out West. We are surrounded by this gorgeous landscape, cowboys, and wildlife and that’s why people come here. So why would they want to buy a sheet of blue paper?
Along similar lines, what resources are lacking from the community?
You know, this is my personal thing, that I really love having a few artist friends that I can bounce ideas off of. I still drive them crazy down at the James Castle Collection, because I like to bring work down there and say, “This is what I’m doing. What do you think?” And they’ll stop and talk about it. It would be wonderful to have a little bit more of that. I think being an artist in this town is, for me, a very lonely occupation. It’s not like Paris where you go and have drinks at five o’clock every day and talk about your art down at Bardenay or something.
What do you think it takes to create a stronger community like that?
I don’t know. I think if there was a really strong gallery scene here where there were gallerists that were actually critiquing work or at least weeding out good work. Even if it’s just their vision of what they like. There’s nothing like that, there’s no place to really show or anyplace for several artists to have shows at one time. At the cooperative galleries you get a little bit of space or, if you do get a show, you’re showing with somebody else and everybody else’s stuff is there. You just can’t get that kind of dialogue to take place. The pie is so small here that I think artists have tended—at least in the past—to be guarded of what they’re doing, who they’re showing with, because the competition is pretty extreme. There’s a bit of guardedness that’s just naturally here.
I’d love to visit other artists’ studios but it’s kind taking up their time, or I don’t want to infringe on their time because some people just don’t want that. I certainly don’t disregard that as or discount that as one of the reasons for my version of the arts. You talk to some artists and it’s just great, it’s fabulous, and it might be at the university level. I don’t know what that’s like, but you show up to a painting class and there’s a lot of people painting and maybe there’s something that happens there. But at my place, it just doesn’t. It’s not like I’m blue about it. I gave up on it a long time ago. The arts can be the hardest and the loneliest job I’ve ever had. That’s just the way it is.
So, what keeps you coming back to it?
When I’m onto something, when I’m hot, it’s incredibly exciting for me. The work may end up in a drawer somewhere, but it’s kind of like I just have to dance. I can’t imagine what else I would do. Nothing else makes me want to go somewhere or show up. Being retired, I don’t have an obligation to support myself by working every day, so it’s not just something to do, but it’s really something to do. It’s something big for me to do.
Finally, do you have any words of advice?
I think if someone is an artist, they already know. Their heart’s their best advice. They know they’ve got to keep painting. They’ve got to make art and they’ve got to do it. Whatever it is.
I have this friend who is a next-door neighbor of mine, the youngest daughter came to see me when she was in high school and she was going to major in art and she wanted me to encourage her. I didn’t discourage her, but I told her that she might want to look at getting an education degree or getting some sort of other major that she could actually make a living out of and work the art on the side. That is what I did forever until I could finally make this my job. This is not the Renaissance, this is not where there’s lots of stuff being painted, ceilings and everything else. You’ve got to find a clientele and it’s a business. It’s a really, really tough business. Because what you want to do is not necessarily what somebody wants to buy.
Creators, Makers, & Doers highlights the lives and work of Boise artists and creative individuals. Selected profiles focus on individuals whose work has been supported by the Boise City Dept. of Arts & History.