by Lou Mancinelli
Imagine traveling east across the U.S., then across the Pacific Ocean to Mongolia, a nation bordered by Russia on the north and China on the south, to fly-fish for trout on a remote stream in the north of the country and meeting a camp of nomads living in “gers.” (A ger —pronounced ‘gair’ — is the focus of the herdsman’s world. It is a collapsible, round tent of tremendous advantage to the nomad because of its durability, lightness and low cost. The ger is more than a tent; it is a home, made mostly of wood and other local materials.)
How might this romantic vision be affected when you observe some of the nomads themselves carrying cell phones, and about one in 10 of the portable living structures has a satellite dish and solar panel attached to its exterior, while inside others have flat-screen televisions?
Stefania Luciani Binnick is an artist, educator and Chestnut Hill College and University of Pennsylvania graduate, and a member of the Philadelphia Cricket Club whose award-winning art has been exhibited in the U.S. and Europe. She discovered the nomads in Mongolia who lead lifestyles that conserve the environment around them and who also want to “to communicate with the rest of the world.”
“I’ve seen ways people live according to the way nature tells them to live,” said Binnick, 49, who as an undergraduate studying art history, Spanish and French in the early 1980s took courses abroad at the Sorbonne in Paris and at the University of Madrid. “I bring back documentation and create pieces that show the evolution of the land and sky and how people and objects are part of that process. For humanity to continue we have to learn about conservation.”
And while she has been to the world’s elite cities and remote streams, Binnick continues to live in America, close to where she was raised in East Norriton.
“My parents came to America and started a family,” said Binnick in an interview last week. “They came here for us to have a better chance in life and to live in a country with better opportunities for life.”
And so her own work often revolves around objects associated with leading a better life through sustainability, harmony with nature and exercise. One of her cherished pieces is a painting of a bicycle she was commissioned to do by the wife of a man who rode the bike in fundraisers. “That bike has done some good. I had to capture all the extensions [the bike] gave and social interactions it caused.”
Binnick was commissioned to create a glass mosaic that hangs permanently in the pediatric oncology department at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. She designed it after “the theme of a thousand origami cranes,” a Japanese tradition, to serve as a healing piece for children.
Her latest project, “My Heart is Like White Milk,” was inspired by a recent fly fishing trip to the Eg-Ur Watershed in Mongolia through a foundation called the Tributary Fund, that teaches locals skills like how to pasteurize their fields to keep their rivers, streams and indigenous fish like “the river wolf” (Taimen trout) healthy.
According to Binnick, the saying means “good-hearted” and is a reference to the Mongolian tradition of offering warm mare’s milk to family and guests as a sign of hospitality, a theme she wants to convey in her drawings and landscapes she calls “expressive realism.” The project includes sketches and photo documentation of the area, its families, forests, rivers, monasteries and shaman caves from as far back as Genghis Khan, 13th century Mongol conqueror.
“In Mongolia, the respect for nature, family and people are all tied together,” said Binnick.
Sustainable living is a practice Binnick, mother of three sons who lives with her husband Dr. Steven Binnick in Blue Bell, learned from her grandparents in Abruzzo as well as from the nomads in Mongolia who build their living units from fallen tree branches and animals’ fur for clothes. She cans her own tomatoes, and the family maintains a sustainable farmstead near Bloomsburg in upstate Pennsylvania.
“I grew up loving food and the abundance the earth gives us,” she said. “I’ve tried to replicate that culture” here at home in America.
Binnick, who also teaches French and Spanish on an as-needed basis, will borrow from the nomads when she builds large-scale versions of the small clay tea cup and winter and summer cup series she sculpted. She plans to collect reusable woods from sawmills from
the countryside to build an outdoor tea room.
“It comes from the idea of wanting to build a sculpture to unify nature and humanity,” she said about the project she hopes to complete this spring in the backyard at the family’s farm. “It represents where water is transferred from rivers and lakes and ends up in the cup, and then into our world when we drink.”
Recently, Binnick was invited to exhibit her work in the International Biennale of Contemporary Art that will take place in Florence, Italy, in December, 2011. She attributes her opportunities to study abroad and travel around the world to connections she made, in part, as a student at Chestnut Hill College.
“We need to become citizens of the world,” she said. She hopes her work, and her tea garden, which can be installed in parks, will help “art interact with society more … and continue to evolve humanity.”