Lisa Binkley

Photo by Lisa Binkley

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature—the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.”

Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

Lisa Binkley’s route to her current art practice has taken a circuitous path not unlike that of the intricate stitching that so characterizes her imaginative and painstakingly detailed efforts in quilting and needled beadwork. While studying fiber arts at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, she entertained the idea of making large-scale weavings and rugs. This intention was deflected by marriage and subsequent sojourn to Milwaukee, where a series of less than satisfactory jobs led her to graduate school in urban planning and land use policy at UW–Milwaukee. Lisa worked for over a decade for the Department of Transportation (DOT) helping craft public policy for the creation of regional transportation authorities as well as involvement with efforts at historical preservation policy.

Attending a seminar on identifying and categorizing priorities, ironically at the behest of her employer, Lisa realized that her penchant and urgency to find a more creative outlet for her energies led to her decision to leave her DOT career and engage with her art on a full-time basis. A friend introduced her to the field of quilt design, putting her on the path toward national recognition as a bead worker, fabric printer, quilter, and much sought-after teacher and workshop director. Lisa now travels about one week a month across the country demonstrating her techniques, inspiring like-minded artists, and expanding the fabric arts community.

Photograph provided by Lisa Binkley

Lisa begins her description of her work with an insistence that she avoids any unnecessary distinctions between art and craft. She maintains that much of her impetus for her expression comes from the manufacturing of her pieces—by engaging with the physical process of her work: the feel, the sight, the sound, the very material presence. She often feels more kinship with a woodworker in the primacy of the sensory experience. None of this, of course, denies the discipline of design and decision-making, but rather that in her taxonomy of creative concerns, idea/material/and image, it’s the nature of her materials that will always drive the final creative decisions.

Good natured and untidy, Lisa’s work falls roughly into two arenas: delicately and intricately figural beadwork (often depicting fantastically imagined forces of air, water, and energy) and botanical dyeing (a more recent development in her art which depends on a process called mordanting, in which leaves and flowers are wrapped onto woolen or silken fabrics and rolled around copper pipes and steamed in order to release the tannins, which produce the soft, muted, and often surprising color transfers that become the images in her larger quilt works). Not only are the scales involved in these diverse works striking, but also the dramatic change in color palette. While the colors in the beadwork are already present in the raw material, the transfer pieces are often more subtle and surprising than their parent material. The color of the transfers is frequently quite different from the naturally apparent color of the sourced leaf or flower.

Lisa’s beadwork has the longer history, combining materials sourced from around the world, especially Japan and the Czech Republic. The textures are often a contrast of hard and soft, shiny and mat, accompanied by densely worked stitching. As she explains, “Handwork is good for your brain. That’s a lot of therapy.” The scale is often dictated by discarded cigar boxes that she collected from her father and uses as frames, and begun with a fabric that begins to suggest the image.

Photograph provided by Lisa Binkley

“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”
Edgar Degas

A number of these works feature anthropomorphic or zoomorphic elements, as in the work Archipelago, in which small polychromed turtles swim in a sea made of concentric and intersecting waves of turquoise, cerulean, and cobalt accented with complementary beads of orange and yellow. The square of beaded waves is set into a larger quilt that has been delicately gridded over a subtle fabric suggesting passing clouds.

Going In is a playful narrative of a rainbow turtle carrying upon its back a seascape with a bright sky and popcorn-shaped clouds. The turtle sets forth into a bejeweled pond of subdued violets and floating golden leaves. Just as the turtle carries a landscape with him, a different treatment of land and sky is explored in Fruition, a small vertically oriented design that settles a quiescent head of a Buddha into a gentle earth-toned soil and from which springs emergent flowers of startling complexity and geometric invention.

A revealing and very personal work entitled On the path each day I realize the journey is my only home suggests a karesansui garden, or dry landscape of raked sand, intended primarily for contemplation rather than meditation. Lisa has created islands of pearlescent orbs and black monoliths that float upon the surrounding beadwork raked into interacting ripple-like rings that resonate the contours of the interposed forms.

Photograph provided by Lisa Binkley

In 2019, Lisa began to explore botanical dyeing as a precursor to making larger quilted and stitched tapestry-like hangings—from small picture-sized objects up to wall size (70 by 100 inches), such as her current effort, Forest Clearing. The larger works are composed of multiple smaller, disparately sized dyed fabric pieces with mysterious, ethereal, almost fragile images that seem to fade into and out of focus. Joined together like carefully tended fields seen from the air, these quilts are accented and abetted by tiny arabesques of stitching set against the evanescent traces of botanical diversity. Unlike the centripetal and centrifugal forces at work in the beaded images, these pieces seem to possess a more organic quality of growth, neither random nor constrained, but responding to a deep organizing principle like that governing the growth of a flowering bush.

Lisa’s work remains playful, pensive, mysterious, and enduring. She has taken the often overlooked tools of needle, thread, buttons, beads, and fabric and, using the skills passed on by generations of women, created works of lasting and compelling beauty.

Chris Gargan is a landscape artist and freelance writer working from his farm southwest of Verona. You can find his work at Abel Contemporary Gallery in Stoughton. He is seen here with his dog Tycho Brahe.

Photograph by Larassa Kabel