BROOKINGS – Brookings Mickelson Middle School art teacher Eileen Binkley is returning for her fourth consecutive year at the Brookings Summer Arts Festival – after being juried in on her first try. 

And this year she’ll be bringing some new offerings for her patrons.

The past three festivals Binkley displayed her watercolor paintings and pen-and-ink drawings, in the Painting category. This year she is in the Mixed Media category.

“I’m still showing my watercolors and pen-and-ink drawings, but this year I’ve added weaving into my display,” she explained. “About two years ago I started weaving, and so now I’m going to start showing them as well.” 

The weavings are separate from her paintings and intended to be displayed as wall hangings. 

“But I feel like the two, the paintings and weavings, relate to each other,” she added. “They have more color stories. It’s a new process. I guess I’m sort of piloting it this year to see how the reception is. So far people have been very interested in the weavings. So that’s why I decided to include them.

“They are non-representational and typically inspired by landscapes. They have a color story usually that I’ll be working with, something inspired by the lake or the deserts or something like that. Sometimes I will weave shapes into the weaving. Sometimes it’s abstract.”

Binkley credits much of her finding a new talent to the late Grete Bodogaard, a traditional Norwegian fiber artist and former South Dakota Artist in Residence. Binkley met Bodogaard, “an incredible character,” while she was student-teaching in Deuel. In 2010 she invited Bodogaard to be an artist in residence at MMS.

“I didn’t realize at the time how much Grete had influenced me,” Binkley said. “She helped me with the basics of weaving. She taught me how you can make a loom out of nearly anything, how to warp it, how to weave over and under. It’s those foundations that she taught me that I built on as an artist.”  

To make her weavings, Binkley uses two small hand looms: one measures 12 by 16 inches, the other 16 by 20 inches.

The width of a weaving is determined by the size of the loom; but the length can be variable.

“They can be very, very long, depending on how long I make the fringe,” she explained. “The largest weaving I’ve made is about 4 feet long.”

Binkley attended elementary school in Estelline; high school in Brookings, graduating in 2002; and then South Dakota State University, graduating in 2006. She earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in individual art with an emphasis on printing and printmaking. She followed that with a K through 12 art education and teaching certificate.

This fall Binkley goes into her 12th year of teaching art. She was hired into the Brookings School District in 2008. Initially she taught at Medary Elementary for two years before moving to Mickelson Middle School, where she teaches art in grades six through eight: painting and drawing, and sculpture and ceramics.

Always an artist

Looking back to even before she attended school, Binkley said she identified as an artist – while growing up on a small family farm about 3 miles north of Oakwood Lake State Park. 

“I was always an artist,” she said. “Even as a child I loved to draw and paint. I was very influenced by my father’s hobby of historical re-enacting. He would do different time periods of re-enacting the Civil War. I really loved the 1820s fur traders.

“We would go to these primitive camping events, where people would be doing this historical re-enacting. And there were always people creating things.

“There were people weaving on looms; there were potters. Dave Huebner (Dakota Stoneware Pottery) was there. There were people doing wood carvings, being very creative. 

“It was a very creative group of individuals to grow up with. I remember my dad made his own moccasins. So even from that young age and just being not only inspired by creative people, but also being in the outdoors gave me a real appreciation for South Dakotan culture and the landscape and the animals of South Dakota.

“There were teepees with beautiful paintings on them. So from an early age, I was inspired.”

However, Binkley admitted to being confused; like many young people, she had been told that it was difficult to make a career as an artist.

She considered being a social worker and also “had a brief thing with theater.” But after her first year of college she “just knew that art was my calling.” 

But she didn’t think about being an art teacher until she graduated with a degree in painting.

“I realized I just really wanted to pay some bills,” she said, laughing lightly. “So I went back and got my (teaching) certificate. And I’ve been teaching ever since.”

Art not magical, demands hard work

For about the first four years of teaching, Binkley didn’t make any of her own art. That changed in 2012, while she and her husband, Steve Binkley, an English teacher and soccer coach at Brookings High School, were expecting their first child.

“During that summer, I just started drawing animals,” she explained. “I was in this creative burst of energy; I was thinking about my childhood, I was thinking about children’s books.”

Growing up on the farm, she had an old book of Hans Christian Anderson fairy tales, a book that she “loved and stared at for hours.”

Being both a teacher and “always an artist” are perspectives that Binkley brings to the classroom. 

“At the middle school level, art is meant to be exploratory and introductory,” she explained. “I try to be very welcoming and popular and encouraging.

“You’ll have your students who come in and they love art and they’re comfortable. And then you’ll have just as many that are like: ‘I can’t draw; art is not my thing.’

“I always tell them being an artist or making a piece of art isn’t magical. We aren’t born with this innate talent to do something.

“Of course, there are geniuses out there that are like that; but most of us have to work really hard. I tell my students that if you want to get better at something, you try it.

“It’s going to be bad at first and that’s OK. Put your pencil to the paper; that I can help you with. I can’t help you with a blank page.”

To those students who do show that hint of what might be innate talent, Binkley’s advice is simple: “Believe that you can make a living as an artist. Follow that path. Create a portfolio. And early on, start in high school, look at art schools that you’d be interested in going to. Really dream big and go for those loftier goals.”

COURTESY OF: The Brookings Register

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