All Walks of Life: Gordon Binder

Artists come from all walks of life. Some begin their education or careers in other fields, and then realize later on that something keeps pulling them back to creative pursuits. Studio Gallery has the pleasure of representing artists from all kinds of diverse backgrounds and beginnings.

In this latest edition of our All Walks of Life series, following such artists, Gordon Binder describes how his background in architecture, urban planning, and environmental issues has influenced him and led to a start in the arts.

Day at the Beach, Pastel on paper, 8” x 8”

What is your background?

“I grew up moving around a lot as my father took new jobs.  Born in New Rochelle, New York; we moved to Philadelphia, Dallas, Columbus/Ohio, Kansas, and southern California. I studied architecture and urban planning at the University of Michigan. Later I was a Loeb Fellow for a year at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design; I commuted weekly from DC and drilled down to learn more about real estate development, along with a few indulgences, film history and music appreciation for instance.

During my Michigan years, I had a summer internship at the then new federal Council on Environmental Quality, offices near the White House, where I worked on a chapter for the annual report on the inner city environment. I met there a senior staff member William Reilly with whom I’ve been working ever since. 

After school, I worked with him on a report on land use, then for a nonprofit environmental think tank The Conservation Foundation he headed and where I was involved in projects on urban revitalization and historic preservation, and for a time handled communications for the organization. Then to World Wildlife Fund, EPA as chief of staff, and after that back to WWF as a senior fellow. There ever since involved with water issues, climate and energy, land conservation, sustainable development, and more. I worked with the BP Oil Spill Commission and with President Obama’s Global Development Council.”

Why did you decide to become an artist?

“As for my interest in art, my aunt in New York City painted in her era - 40s, 50s, 60s - still lifes, portraits, landscapes, abstracts. When my family visited, I was always intrigued with what she was doing. Years later, at Michigan, in those days before computers, we did by hand our own ink drawings of floor plans, as well as renderings of projects and facades in a variety of media, thus giving me some drawing experience. After being wowed by Degas bronzes at the Metropolitan Museum in New York during one holiday break, I made a point of taking art history courses along with the required architectural history class.

 At one point in the late 80s, well into my environmental career, while cleaning out a cabinet, I found my old drawing equipment; I got a sketchbook and went out to Dupont Circle to try my hand.

The real impetus came when I left EPA in 1993. I was wiped out after 4 grueling years and took a number of steps to renew myself. Mindful of the earlier influences in my life, I started by taking classes in figure drawing through the Smithsonian Associates and in the Corcoran’s open program, where I met many fellow Studio Gallery artists who also studied with William Christenberry, an important mentor for many of us.

In these classes I got a lot of encouragement. And as I progressed and explored subject matter, I found that I got an emotional charge when I finished a work that I really liked, that conveyed something I was trying to capture. I found the process uses a different part of your brain, a welcome distraction from the serious environmental issues I was focused on.

I started showing in the late ‘90s. My first gallery on U Street, Rivaga, closed abruptly.  I showed at gallery plan b on 14th Street for 10 years before it too closed. Then to Studio Gallery fall 2015, where I’ve been in group shows, had my first solo show fall of 2018, and an upcoming duo in October. All in all, along the way, I’ve had some success in sales and coverage though never enough.

Golden Gate Bridge, Pastel on Beige Paper, 12” x 9”

I didn’t contemplate becoming an artist full time. I needed a salary, savings, and the like, having grown up amidst some financial insecurity. However satisfying creating art can be, for most artists it doesn’t provide an income you can live on. That said, I get great satisfaction from producing work I like and others like. That’s what keeps me going art-wise. I also read a lot of artist biographies and art histories to give me perspective on my work and that of others, on the struggles artists face, on art markets, art movements, and the like.”

Fall, Mountain View Lake, Adirondacks, Oil on paper, 11” x 13.5”

How has your background influenced your artwork?

“During college, in one art history course on more or less modern art, the professor put up 35 mm slides (the format then) showing ordinary urban streets. He then said everywhere you look, if you look, you see shapes and forms, spaces, barriers, signage, reflections, nature – that is, basic ingredients for artistic compositions.

That’s been something of a guiding principle for me. My architecture and planning background has focused me on skylines and street scenes - the shapes and forms and so on you see in cities - and my conservation background on nature’s majestic landscapes and seascapes. 

I also do figurative work, seeking to capture individuals and groups as they animate their surroundings in parks and pubs, on the street, on the Metro, at the theater and music events.”

What currently inspires your artwork the most?

“I draw what I see around me. I have more than 300 sketchbooks, along with folders, filled with drawings of the subject matter I’ve mentioned. From some of the drawings I develop paintings, others are pastels or colored with wash and stand by themselves.

I take inspiration from the environment I’m in, whether out and about in the city or out in nature. I see elements of life wherever I look, what people do and create, what nature does and creates.”

Maple Turning, Mountain View Lake, Adirondacks, Conte chalk on paper, 8” x 8”

If you love Gordon’s work, come view it in person in his upcoming exhibition, Nature on My Mind- Landscapes, Seascapes. The show will be open from October 2nd through October 26th, 2019. Join us for an artist’s reception on Saturday, October 19th from 4pm to 6pm. Come on in and meet the artist behind these beautiful works!

If you're unable to attend the artist's reception, that's alright! Stop by for First Friday on October 4th from 6pm to 8pm.


From staff contributor Bri Hooijberg.