This piece was first published November 2018.
By DOUGLAS IMBROGNO | thestoryisthething.com
When Jude Binder considers her long and varied artistic career, she can choose from among a host of pivotal moments.
Her creative identities are many. She is a dancer, an actor, a woodcarver, mask-maker and an artist. As the co-founder and artistic director of Heartwood in the Hills, a Calhoun County-based school for the arts deep in the West Virginia hills, she has taught thousands of students.
She is also the signature image in publicity for the annual FestivALL Charleston, a citywide arts and culture event. As the mask-wearing FestivALL “Princess,” she cavorts and interacts with festivalgoers on the summertime streets of West Virginia’s capital city.
And now, at age 75, she is the 2017-2018 Master Artist Fellow of the Tamarack Foundation for the Arts, celebrated for a lifetime of accomplishments as a West Virginia artist.
Yet to properly portray the roots of a life creatively lived, a very first noteworthy moment to consider would not be a sterling moment in the spotlight or encouraging the passions of scores of younger artists.
That moment would be much more down-to-earth, simple and resonant.
Picture Binder as a child, hugging the legs of a grand piano in the house where she grew up in Washington, D.C. At the keys is her mother, Elizabeth Binder, a huge influence in fertilizing Binder’s lifelong creativity.
“My house was filled with music,” Binder recalled, seated at a dining room table in her home next to her studio at Heartwood in the Hills.
“My mother was a musician, a pianist. So, there was always a grand piano in the living room. And there was always music. She was a teacher of music,” Binder said.
She was forbidden to interrupt while her mother rehearsed and played, practicing scales — sometimes shifting from a waltz to a march and back to a waltz again — to hone her skill.
“I would sit under the piano and hug the legs, so that I could feel the vibrations. I learned a lot of music that way. I heard her figure out all these things. And it influenced me. And then, of course, she would talk to me about it.”
At age 7, Binder accompanied her mother to the ballet. At age 10, her mother took her to see “Porgy and Bess,” starring Cab Calloway and Leontyne Price. Later, they saw Richard Burton perform “Hamlet,” and — shifting gears to popular culture greats — they saw Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, singing truth to power.
Throughout her life, her mother would champion Binder’s creativity and introduce her to newfound troves of creative expression. Binder recalls a time in the early ’60s, when she returned home to visit her.
“She took me by the hand, as she always did, and she said you have to listen to this. And she sat me down on the couch and put on phonograph records of Benjamin Britten’s ‘War Requiem.’ And we wept and hung on to each other.”
Afterwards, Binder began a series of etchings based on Britten’s music.
So, it would not be too great a leap to suggest that the vibrations Binder felt beneath her mother’s piano have echoed through her life, both as an artist and — as a teacher herself — through generations of young dancers and mask-makers she has taught at Heartwood.
Experiencing her mother’s own creativity, it was a case of an adult “showing a child how to learn,” said Binder, a theme important to the ongoing work and legacy of Heartwood in the Hills.
“It was just a part of being alive. To have the music and to move to the music.”
‘A nasty little boy’
One noteworthy moment in her early creative development did indeed take place in the gleam of stage lights.
Binder was 11 years old when the Sadler’s Wells Ballet Company came to Washington, D.C., the precursor of the legendary troupe that would later come to be christened The Royal Ballet.
“My queen of all queens, Margot Fonteyn, was performing,” said Binder.
The troupe did not travel with children, instead seeking young actors from ballet companies in the cities in which it performed. On the bill for that D.C. visit was the popular Ballet Russes production of Igor Stravinsky’s “Petrushka.”
Binder was a student at the Washington School of Ballet. She was one of several young students invited to perform in the ballet, which portrays the loves and jealousies of three puppets.
“I was on stage and was invited to be a little boy in the most exciting part of the whole ballet,” she recalled.
The scene took place as the story moves to the Shrovetide Fair in the Russian city of St. Petersburg.
“The men come out and stamp their boots to this alarming music. They were in big Russian overcoats and their boots were gigantic and they had these beards and hats. And they were smacking themselves on their backs and stamping their feet.”
Binder’s face dissolves into a broad smile. “I was a lost soul at that point. I just would want to relive that over and over again,” she said.
Then, the ballerinas took the stage.
“The most beautiful women in the world, of course, in their long skirts and Russian costumes and these tiaras that had ribbons hanging all down their backs.
“So the music is blasting, and I’m totally transported. And I yank on one of the ribbons. And this gorgeous woman looks down at me and says, ‘Oh, you nasty little boy!’”
“I thought: ‘She really believes me! I’m a nasty little boy!’ And I knew. I understood something. I understood what it meant to be on a stage.”
And now you also know why the FestivALL Princess, in her gorgeous, handmade masks, always features ribbons streaming down her back.
Yet another pivotal moment in her career would be a collection of moments around the art and craft of mask-making and woodworking, learned in the hills of West Virginia.
Binder long had a fascination with the Mountain State. Her family would take vacations in the West Virginia woods when she was young, her father piling the family into the car and driving out from the nation’s capital.
“Families looking for jobs would come from West Virginia to D.C. And their kids would go to school and they’d come into my class,” she remembered. “I developed, I suppose, a very romantic view of these kids.
“I was a little Jewish girl and these kids came in with their red hair and freckles; and somehow, to me, they carried the magic of the forest or something. I imbued them with some kind of specialness — they were from West Virginia!”
Binder and her partner, Frank Venezia, would eventually come to meet and live in the state as part of the back-to-the-land movement in the ’70s. The migration brought an influx of starry-eyed young people, abandoning urban and suburban life, seeking to make a go of spirited rural life in the state’s hills.
They met at a commune in 1973, which lasted five years. Eventually, she and Venezia found acreage in Grantsville where they moved in 1981, which would come to be the site of Heartwood in the Hills.
Venezia built their house, adding what Binder had long dreamed of having as a dance instructor: a dance floor, one built with a bounce and spring to it for all the dancers to come.
This had never been possible at the commune despite her wishes.
“I needed a great big floor. And if I had a great big floor, I could do all the teaching I ever needed to do, and would you help me build a great big floor?! And everyone was planting acres of corn.”
So, Frank built her a great big floor. And she began teaching, opening Heartwood initially as a school for dance in 1982 on her 40th birthday.
During her commune days, she had met a skinny Calhoun County woodworker, with piercing eyes and the shakes. His name was Roy Talmidge Geho. She tracked him down to have him cut a piece of black walnut she wished to use to carve a wooden doll.
After the commune disbanded, she and Frank came to focus their lives on the new home they’d built. There came a knock on the front door one day.
“Frank opens the door and this voice said: ‘Are you the man with the whittlin’ woman?’”
It was Geho.
“He walked in and sat down in a chair and said in so many words that he had gotten a message that I was sent for him to teach me everything I wanted to know about wood — if I would come to his shop and do the things he couldn’t do anymore because of his shaking.”
So, she commenced her “education in wood,” as she calls it.
Her award-winning wood-carving, which includes wooden masks that she brings out for social justice-themed work, remains a form of steady, spiritual pursuit for her.
Given her busy teaching schedule, she really only gets to focus intently on sustained wood-carving over the winter. She’ll do it until the day she moves on, she says.
“The wood calls me. I wonder how long I’m going to be able to go out on the streets in the heat of summer in a heavy costume and a mask. But I know I can carve until I cannot do anything.”
Her other hands-on education came in the crafting of masks from tarlatan, a fabric used in the production of etchings and which used to be used for ballerina tutus. It was a revelation for her to take a class in 1984 in Elkins in tarlatan mask-making.
“All I’d ever made in terms of mask-making was chicken wire and paper mache, clunking around people’s faces. And it was awful.”
The elegant, colorful tarlatan masks she would come to make — and which she would teach many how to make, including her son Gideon, who himself became a master at the craft — would leap from Heartwood.
First, she took them to streets of Grantsville for its annual Wood Festival. “It had not occurred to me to take the masks out on the street,” said Binder.
But the festival featured a parade. “So, I would go out there with my students and with the adults who wanted to study mask-making or perform in masks. And we would be in the parade!”
In 2007, Larry Groce, who was then running FestivALL Charleston, asked her to be a masked performer on the streets of the citywide event.
“I had a big pink dress, which was my daughter-in-law’s wedding dress which she had designed. A magnificent pink mountain of a dress, with flowers and glitter and birds!” Binder recalled.
The children she encountered on the streets of FestivALL loved the magical figure in the mysterious colorful mask, christening her “the princess.”
And that was how the Princess of FestivALL was born.
Wild and Brilliant
There were many more traditional — though no less significant — moments on the dance stage and even in the gymnasium.
There was her time in her 20s, as a ballet dancer living in Austin, Texas. She studied with a teacher and choreographer named Stanley Hall and danced with a partner named K. Douglas.
“It was the height of my work en pointe,” said Binder, utilizing the French term for how ballet dancers move gracefully on the tips of their toes.
She was also being tossed into the air a lot by Hall, she said, grinning at the memory. “I was airborne all the time. I trusted him completely.”
The Bolshoi Ballet had swept into the country, and the troupe’s ballerinas were often sent flying, she said. “They were up in the air all the time. We learned lifts from their choreography.”
She danced the classics, such as “The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” from Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker.”
“That,” Binder said of working with Hall, “was the most ‘ballerina’ I would ever be in my life, given the chance to do his choreography and work with this wonderful partner.”
In the early 1970s, she taught dance at The College at Brockport, State University of New York. Richard Bull, head of the dance department, staged an original production of “Sing-along Sun King,” inspired by music and songs from the Beatles’ “Abbey Road” album.
Bull was the “Sun King” and Binder played “Polythene Pam.” The show was staged in a gymnasium, the audience lustily singing along in the bleachers.
The performance was among the most ecstatic in her long career, said Binder. Barefoot, she took a solo as a spotlight shone upon her and she burst into a transportive dance as the audience sang along:
“Well, you should see Polythene Pam / She’s so good-looking but looks like a man / Well, you should see her in drag dressed in her polythene bag / Yes, you should see Polythene Pam …”
“The choreography was wild and brilliant and a true visual depiction of the Beatles’ music,” Binder recalled. At the end, the dancers walked around the gym, inviting the audience to come dance with them.
“Young people leapt off the bleachers towards me, with the music and the smiles and flying through the air, and everyone dancing like crazy! There was so much happiness in that room.”
She went on to learn mime and clowning. She created the character of Goldie the clown. She produced theatrical productions, both light-hearted and freighted with social significance. A significant production of the second sort was “Broken Bough,” staged in Institute in 1990 at the then-West Virginia State College.
The production was inspired by the historic photographs Lewis Hine shot of child laborers in the early 20th century.
“The child labor photographs were projected onto the stage. Children would come forward and tell the audience about the children in their own words, because Lewis Hines had captioned each photograph with quotes from the children,” said Binder.
The play aimed at teaching children — and their families — about the history of children, instead of the usual history focused on adults, she said.
“Broken Bough” was a significant step for her.
“It brought my work a step forward in terms of some kind of public recognition that would help me continue on the path I had chosen. That was to improve my work as an artist and make a contribution in the struggle for social justice that would be substantial and have some kind of an impact.”
Filmmakers John Nakashima and Chip Hitchcock from the West Virginia public broadcasting station WVPB made a documentary inspired by the production, titled “Act Up.”
The ongoing legacy of Binder’s work is neatly summed up by the fact that one of the young girls who appeared in “Broken Bough” — Amy Jacobs Nicholas — is now president of the Heartwood in the Hills board. And her own daughter now takes lessons at Heartwood.
Binder points to this after-effect from the play as one of the reverberations from her decision long ago to stick with West Virginia and to devote her life to a place where she would unfold her skills wherever they might lead.
“I wanted to come and stay — and by staying, something would happen that can only happen with staying. So, that little girl becoming president of our board — that is because we stayed. So, that’s very gratifying.”
Binder is also keen to point out the significance of becoming part of positive social movements and the impact they had on her own life and career. She is also well aware that movements can cut in the opposite direction.
“It was the women’s movement that made it happen for me. That’s how I know movements make it happen. It could be, you know, a brilliant, wonderful movement or it could be a scary fascist movement, which we’re so afraid of right now.
“Movements are so powerful, and I was able to experience several of them. I don’t think anything better could happen for young people than being part of a benevolent movement.”
Put in the time
Binder’s resume could be plumbed for many more pivotal moments, both as a performer, director, teacher and — oddly enough — as a patient.
In 1976, she tore her femur off her tibia while teaching some young girls a move in a modern dance class. “I fell down with a loud popping sound. People down the hall turned around! One of the girls said, ‘Do we have to do that?!”
But what she had done was to immobilize herself for months of recovery, during which time she hand-carved wooden birds for friends. She also awoke to the fact that if she was going to teach dance and motion, she had a whole lot more to learn about anatomy.
“I was really humiliated and realized I had no right to teach a physical activity if I did not understand these structures beneath the skin,” said Binder.
She discovered a book left by a visiting dancer, “The Thinking Body,” published in 1937 by Mabel Elsworth Todd, a study of physiology and the psychology of movement that remains influential in modern dance.
“I needed to know the mechanics and the engineering principles that need to be followed so that people can dance. And when they’re in their 70s, they can still dance!”
For that is what she still does, working out daily on the springy dance floor her partner built so long ago.
She works out within sight of a life-size plastic human skeleton hung on a frame near the mirrors. She uses the skeleton to teach students the physiology of their dance movements — and, just as importantly, how not to strip their own femurs off their tibias.
At an age when many people are content to rest on their laurels in retirement, Binder keeps an active schedule of teaching and creation.
“I work out every day and the workout is very meditative. It’s ballet and its modern dance and it’s my own syllabus called ‘Movement for Health and Centering.’”
She knows she cannot go on dancing forever and the day will come when perhaps a new FestivALL Princess is crowned and masked.
When that day comes, she’ll still have her mask-making, her wood-carving, her teaching, Binder said. “I’ve always assumed sooner or later that that’s what I would do — that the artwork would win out.”
She also cannot imagine not teaching.
“I would like for Heartwood to continue, at least while I am able to continue. I would certainly like for Heartwood to get the support that I feel it deserves, so that the mission that I wanted at the very beginning could continue.”
For aspiring artists, dancers, mask-makers or anyone with a goal to ripen their creative desires and aims, she offers up a simple, albeit challenging, formula for success.
“If you put in the time, you gain the skill. If you don’t put in the time, your skill stays at the same level. Until you decide to put in the time.”
She looks forward to the winter, to resume working on some ambitious woodcarvings that have been years in the making. She is open to commissions, for her work is not yet done.
She is still putting in the time.
“I would love to have commissions to carve wood. That’s every artist’s dream, isn’t it?”
To learn more about Tamarack Foundation for the Arts and the Artist Fellowship go to www.TamarackFoundation.org.