Over the last decade as a creative professional, a number of projects I've taken on have fallen outside of conventional categories. In their various forms, such projects were essential in my search for purpose and discovery. Those that lived to see the light of day are detailed below.
An ongoing project documenting the people of Prairie City, South Dakota—a town of 10 to 20 people—most of whom happen to be related to me, in one way or another. When shooting began in 2015, I envisioned the project as a learning exercise, perhaps resulting in a short documentary about the workings of a cattle ranch. But now, after two subsequent visits, I hope to shoot intermittently for another twenty-five years.
My penchant for the noisy digital photos of the late aughts brought me a taste of faux fame in the form of an over-followed Instagram account. I've had a lot of fun with it, writing about the experience for Dirty Laundry Magazine and even earning an "award" in the press for my pocket-sized stardom:
Local artist Robert Bingaman — @robertjosiah, as he is known on Instagram — has 652,000 followers on the photo-sharing app. By comparison, late-night TV host Seth Meyers has 101,000 followers. Vice has 328,000 followers. Bingaman has roughly the same follower count as rapper Riff Raff — and Riff Raff is pretty much the best person on all of Instagram. How did Bingaman do it? By being an early adopter, for one. He was on one of Instagram’s earliest “Suggested User” lists, which organically and exponentially grew his audience. But he’s also, you know, pretty damn good at taking pictures on his phone. Bingaman seemed to be observing the scenery in glamorous coastal locales for much of the summer, and we love the dreamy and inviting way he photographs our fair metro — lush skies, artists and art galleries, landmark KC architecture — from fresh angles. From his iPhone to the pockets of hundreds of thousands of people around the globe, he’s a visual ambassador for our Midwestern burg.
A semi-regular digest of mid-American studios produced from 2011 to 2014 with renowned photographer Mike Sinclair, Wheelhouse Review's original impetus was simple: There are great artists in Kansas City, they work in great places, and those places should be photographed and shared. I wrote the profiles and Sinclair photographed the studios.
In 2012, three local studio artists met on a Sunday morning to paint en plein air, eat breakfast together and discuss the state of contemporary art, their studio practice and their goals. For every Sunday since, at least two and sometimes as many as 150 artists met to participate in this ritual under the banner of the "Kansas City Plein Air Coterie". What began as an informal weekly meeting of friends snowballed into a deeply complex social network in the traditional (non-electronic) sense. The rest is history.
The Pitch, February, 2013:
If the heraldry surrounding some KC PAC activities feels like something out of a Wes Anderson movie, one look at Bingaman on a group outing seals the association: slim-tailored jacket, tie, wooden pipe. Melissa Lenos, given the honorary title "Scout" for her efforts planning a plein-air session that was also a full-on weekend camping trip, knitted each of the four founders a scarf, each representing one of the four seasons.
All that esprit de treehouse helps keep KC PAC's members from sleeping in on Sundays. (It also helps that they eat breakfast together before or after painting; cocktails precede the midnight raids.) It's the same logic behind having a workout buddy — you're more likely to show up if there's someone else to hold you accountable — though no spin class looks like this.
The Kansas City Star, July, 2013:
“I was going stir-crazy in my studio,” Bingaman said. “I felt stymied and was worried I was getting stuck. Something need to change with how I worked.”
Members also hail from Lawrence and other areas outlying Kansas City. The Sunday painting ritual with its emphasis on disciplined observation and practice has become comparable to attending church or playing a weekly game of golf. At a time when social coaches are hired to wean clients from their cellphones for 15 minutes at a stretch, or when the possibility of making eye contact with a nation of nonstop texters is increasingly remote, KC PAC members like being unplugged for a few hours each week.
Participants combine the social networking practices of the 21st century with the mindful meditation of Zen monks. "Don't mistake our positivity for lack of rigor," Bingaman cautions.
KCUR.ORG (Kansas City NPR Affiliate), February, 2014:
Bingaman feels the same way; he thinks people go through life with heads down and eyes averted to numb themselves against so much visual stimulus.
“It’s not unlike the way you see people on a subway car in New York – they’re handling the incredible number of people in the subway car by ignoring them. I feel like that’s what we do when we step outside everyday," says Bingaman. "We don’t really stop and look at a tree, for example, but if you do, there’s enough to satisfy you for two hours. Slowing down, really slowing down, to see what you see and enjoy it, helps us remember how little we need to be enthralled.”
Plein air painting has given Bingaman new eyes not just for his artwork, but also for his city. “I really love the idea that someone who’s from Kansas City, who maybe has some of that sense that it’s not a destination like other places, can stop and realize that this, what I’m looking at, what’s in front of me – has been deemed worthy by an artist to paint," says Bingaman.
“For several months in 2013, I lost the use of my right hand. I soon began learning to write with my left hand, attempting to form shapes and then letters on a child’s wide-ruled tablet. As I concentrated on the spacing and alignment of each character, the words and sentences took on a life of their own, straying into realms of childhood innocence, surrealism, humor, mythology, and loss … After I read a few of these pages out loud to my friend Robert Bingaman, an accomplished painter, he set a similar challenge for himself of drawing, and then painting, with his left hand … By creating new neural pathways and/or tapping into our ‘right brains,’ we found we’d opened a shortcut to a reservoir of imagination and wonder we hadn’t realized was still accessible.”
— excerpt from the introduction