The late Bay Area painter and community activist Bernice Bing (1936-1998) is a name that deserves to be better known. A 2013 documentary film ‘The World of Bernice Bing’ produced and directed by Madeleine Lim for Asian American Women Artists Association and Queer Women of Color Media Arts Project helped shed light on her achievements. It’s only in recent years that the work of of artists like Bing, Ruth Asawa, and Mine Okubo are starting to receive the attention they deserve. IE contributing writer Chizu Omori filed this report.
A new documentary, The Worlds of Bernice Bing, depicting the life and works of a Chinese American artist who lived during some of the most tumultuous times in the history of San Francisco has arrived. Produced by the Asian American Women Artists Association and Queer Women of Color Media Arts Project and directed by noted filmmaker Madeleine Lim, this look at Bernice Bing illuminates the life and career of a remarkable person. Her life (1936-1998) spanned a period in which huge changes took place in American society, and she was a vital figure in the arts community and the Asian American community of that time. The fact that she is so unknown can be attributed to her being ignored for being a woman, an Asian American, a Lesbian when it wasn’t acceptable and also to her cultural heritage. She was not one to push herself and her career forward, always struggling to get by on little money and without much support from her community.
Bingo, as she was known, played a pivotal role in the arts and Chinese American communities, a role that art historian Lydia Matthews likened to quantum physics equating the smallest units being a part of a complicated web of relations between various parts of the whole. “Quantum Bingo”, is what Matthews calls her. She operated in a variety of “worlds” that overlapped and mixed in ways that was new in America. As a modern, experimental artist, as a radical intellectual, as an inhabitant of the beat scene, as a community activist, as a searcher for Asian roots while remaining decidedly American, exploring Zen Buddhism, Jungian psychology, and mysticism as a resident at Esalen in 1967 in New Age Psychology and Philosophy, and as a part of the developing gay world in San Francisco, she was unique.
Her childhood was one of hardship and rejection. After being orphaned, Bing was shuttled around in many foster care homes with mostly white foster parents where she was abused and neglected, and her fiercely independent nature led to conflicts in her living situations. Nevertheless, she understood early in life that she had a talent for art and might consider a career as an artist.
On a student scholarship to the California College of Arts and Crafts, she quickly took up painting and was taught by such luminaries as Nathan Olivera, Richard Diebenkorn and Saburo Hasegawa. She absorbed the life of the times: jazz, avant guard poetry along with the blooming of abstract expressionism in painting. She became part of the San Francisco North Beach Beat scene working as a waitress at Vesuvio’s and the Spaghetti Factory with a studio above that restaurant. Her paintings were large and colorful abstractions, displayed at local shows including having a solo show at a dynamic local gallery, the Batman.
But beyond her accomplishments in the art world, Bingo was seriously interested in her community and that of the Chinese Americans in San Francisco. Concerned over the gang violence that pervaded Chinatown at that time, culminating in a notorious shoot out by rival gangs in a restaurant, she realized that youngsters had nothing to do and so she established a Neighborhood Arts program, Kearny Street Workshop with art activities for these aimless kids. She created SCRAP (Scroungers’ Center for Reusable Art Parts), an ecologically oriented project scrounging discarded supplies, as Matthews says, “while creatively storing them in the form of an ever-changing junk sculpture at Pier 3 in Fort Mason.” Recognizing the potential in that run down area, her establishment of SCRAP continues on today, where artists and others go to find material of every variety for projects. She also directed the South of Market Cultural Center from 1980-84.
In later life, she moved to Philo, a rural town north of San Francisco and continued painting while battling lupus, a very debilitating condition and she continued to be active in Asian American Women Artist’s Association in San Francisco.
In spite of her illness, Bingo maintained a cheerful, upbeat demeanor and is remembered by her friends and associates as a charismatic, energetic and generous personality and she is now emerging from obscurity to being placed in her rightful place as a seminal figure in the Bay Area. The richness of her experiences, her generosity in contributing to the community and to artists in the Bay Area, and her restless explorations broaden our understanding of her gifts and influence in her lifetime, and this film introduces us to this fascinating person and her many complexities.