Jen Banta Yoshida, Meet Bernice Bing

Jen Banta Yoshida interviews Nancy Hom for her Bernice Bing documentary

Jen Banta Yoshida (MA Visual and Critical Studies 2009) is many things: an activist, a writer, an artist, a San Francisco native. For the past seven years, she has been delving into the biography of the artist Bernice Bing.

Her intensive research culminated in The Worlds of Bernice Bing, a documentary film released in late 2013. (Watch the trailer »)

The film will screen next at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento on June 26, 2014 , followed by a Q&A with Jen Banta Yoshida and Lenore Chinn.

Bing was also a San Francisco native. She was born in 1936 in Chinatown and worked in the city for most of her life, as a painter and an activist for community-based arts.

She attended CCA(C) in 1957–58 and then finished her BFA at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute). Joan Brown, Manuel Neri, and Leo Valledor were her fellow students; her instructors included Richard Diebenkorn, Nathan Oliveira, and Saburo Hasegawa. (She got her MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute as well; she was part of the very first MFA graduating class in 1961.)

But even though Bing was part of the Beat generation in the early 1960s and received early critical attention, her colorful, abstract work had largely been forgotten by the time Banta Yoshida rediscovered it and started asking questions.

Hidden in the Rafters

The first glimmers of the project began when Banta Yoshida was pursuing her master’s degree in Visual and Critical Studies at CCA, and simultaneously working as a curator and program manager at the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Center (APICC). The center is housed inside the cavernous warehouse that is SOMArts, one of six community-based cultural centers in San Francisco.

Banta Yoshida couldn’t help noticing a giant canvas stored in the rafters above her desk. She took a closer look and decided to investigate the artist who’d made it. It turned out that the work, Burney Falls (1980), was by Bing, who was the first executive director of SOMArts, serving from 1980 to 1984.

“The more I looked into who Bernice was, the more I discovered how many people in my midst had known her. I recognized an amazing story just waiting to be told,” Banta Yoshida recalls.

She resolved to make this research her CCA thesis project and began interviewing Bing’s friends, who were highly enthusiastic and had plenty to share. The Queer Cultural Center was the only place with a coherent online archive of Bing’s work, including articles and images of her memorial exhibit in 1999.

The archive’s creators, the artists Rudy Lemcke and Lenore Chinn, became particularly valuable collaborators. Chinn’s friendship with Bing contributed greatly to Banta Yoshida’s growing portrait of the artist’s life and sensibilities.

“Lenore was the most amazing advocate for the project and has become a dear friend. She spent so much time and effort supporting my work. She gave me books that Bernice had read, and really opened up a whole other level of the story that I wouldn’t otherwise have had access to.”

The project culminated in a public panel discussion at CCA featuring six women who had known Bing at different points in her life.

“It was really lovely to draw her spirit down in that way. And also to give context to the question of ‘Why don’t we know more about this remarkable artist who was a contemporary and close friend of so many artists we do know well?’

“It was clear that we’d opened the floodgates. I just wasn’t sure what would come next.”

The Movie Version

An opportunity to continue the discussion arrived 18 months later, when Banta Yoshida was approached by the Asian American Women Artists Association to make Bing’s story into a documentary film.

“I became the project director/co-producer for the movie, and we chose Madeleine Lim to be the filmmaker. I wrote the two successful grant applications that funded the film, and I conducted all the interviews based on relationships I had developed over the course of my thesis research.

"The filmmaking process was an incredible learning curve; we all participated in a remarkable achievement. Now that the film is out in the world, Bing’s story will have a life of its own.”

The film premiered at the de Young Museum in September 2013, and Banta Yoshida has since participated in screenings and talks all around the Bay Area in an effort to help spread Bing’s story to as wide an audience as possible.

The Path to CCA

Banta Yoshida completed her undergraduate degree in art history at Mills College in Oakland, focusing on Latin American art and feminist art theory. When it came time to choose a master’s degree program, she was attracted to the newness of CCA’s Visual and Critical Studies program, in particular the innovative course descriptions.

“It resonated with how I looked at the world and the dramatic changes I was witnessing in San Francisco in the years after the dot-com boom. I felt an impetus to critically engage and remember my world in the face of historical cracks. How does an individual begin to negotiate this space and create a new narrative?

“All of my teachers were remarkable, and they were all very different from one another. They all brought something unique to the table. I learned so much from Lydia Matthews.

"Also it was fortunate that I got to study with Carolina Ponce de León and Rebecca Solnit, both of whom I admired greatly before CCA. And, of course, Tirza True Latimer has been an inspiring mentor and a valued collaborator on ongoing projects.”

Banta Yoshida credits the program for “completely challenging my notion of what is possible. I had a remarkable opportunity to navigate uncharted territory with my primary research, and it changed how I looked at, and thought about, the world.”

A Year of Transitions

Lately, in addition to her efforts in promoting The Worlds of Bernice Bing and collaborating with Lenore Chinn on a Bing retrospective exhibition, Banta Yoshida recently wrote an essay for the ProArts 2x2 catalogue on the artist Rosa M. Valdez and is studying with master yoga teachers Jen Hecht and Katrin Kuttner toward a 200-hour yoga teacher certification.

She maintains a devoted yoga practice, and cooks for pleasure with skills honed while working as a chef in her 20s.

“I feel so lucky right now that have chosen to pause and allow the art in my own life to come forward. My work on behalf of Bing’s legacy will continue to be an ongoing mission -- there is still much to be done.

"After more than 10 years devoted to working in community-based arts, in the footsteps of Bing, I am now using the skills and strategies that I honed at CCA to really listen to what wants to come forth next. The possibilities are only limited by my imagination."