Breakfast with The Eagle

Illuminating the art of Armenian women with Suzi Banks Baum

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GREAT BARRINGTON — "I am so often in your seat," Suzi Banks Baum said shortly after sliding into one opposite this reporter at Elixir on Wednesday morning, a pot of tea between us.

Conducting interviews has been a major part of Baum's life over the past three years. Since 2016, the Great Barrington-based artist and writer has been visiting Gyumri, Armenia, querying female artists about their lives and encouraging them to engage in the country's long history with bookbinding and art. Her annual "New Illuminations" residencies have provided workshops and materials for these creators, who have, in turn, produced hand-bound books that offer contemporary perspectives on the illuminated manuscript tradition; some of these elaborate, colorful pieces occupied a table next to ours. Beginning at 2 p.m. Sunday, Baum will present these works, photographs and stories from her Gyumri trips at Elixir, an 100-percent organic vegan cafe next to Triplex Cinema.

"I really value the opportunity to tell the story," said Baum, whose $35 talk includes tea and food (call Elixir at 413-644-8999 for reservations).

Baum had just started in on some Zen morning porridge and toast, washing it down with a cup of tea.

"Oh, Nancy, this is great," she called to Elixir Owner/Chef Nancy Lee, who had opened the ornate cafe for the occasion. Though closed on this particular morning, Elixir is known to host silent Zen morning porridge meals in addition to its later offerings.

In Gyumri, Armenia's second-largest city, Baum encountered a different kind of silencing — the patriarchal kind.

"Women have very few opportunities," Baum said, noting domestic and beauty expectations for Armenian women.

The gender gap is apparent in the history of illuminated manuscripts, which emerged in Armenia more than 1,500 years ago.

"The tradition started gradually: initially, ornamentations appeared on the title pages of the manuscripts, and later, in 'khorans,' in margins, and in the details of dominical and plot-oriented miniatures and on surrounding areas," the Armenian Museum of America describes. "Zoomorphic, floral, and geometrical motifs, as well as heavenly bodies and architectural structures were predominantly used in Armenian ornamentation."

Tied to the Armenian alphabet's formation, as well as the nation's religiosity (many historians consider Armenia to be the first country to adopt Christianity as its official religion), the manuscripts were frequently developed by monks. Thus, Armenian women often weren't included in their creation. Upon visiting the country for the first time with a friend, National Geographic photographer John Stanmeyer, in 2016, Baum found that female disconnection from illuminated manuscripts centuries ago had been passed down to today's Armenian women; Baum couldn't find a book artist among them. This taste of creative exclusivity is the primary reason why Baum, who is not Armenian, has remained dedicated to promoting personal narrative writing and bookmaking to women in Gyumri, where she hopes to return later in 2019. Her residencies have led to dozens of women both showing and selling their work.

"I have an enduring curiosity about creative practice, and the reasons why, in so many different settings, people feel that they can't enter it. They're culturally restricted: 'Women don't do that,' or, 'We don't tell that story,' or, 'I have to have a family,' or, 'I have to become a doctor,'" Baum said. "There's cultural, political and very personal reasons why people don't engage in their creative practice. That is my core curiosity."

Her inquisitiveness has long been grounded in the arts. Born in Evanston, Ill., and raised in the Upper Peninsula city of Escanaba, Mich., Baum wanted to be an actor, hoping to be cast as Peter Pan.

"Growing up in the '70s, I had this, not fluid gender, but I liked the idea of not doing girly things all the time. Theater was a really good opportunity to play outside of what I thought was a normal gender expectation," Baum said.

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At Northern Michigan University, she helped bring art to audiences who might not usually confront it.

"I learned very quickly to adapt art experiences," she said.

After college, she was tapped for an apprenticeship at Actors Theatre of Louisville, where she spent three seasons before moving to New York City to pursue her acting career. By day, she sewed in costume shops. She worked for the Muppets and Martha Graham Dance Company, among others.

"It was a really good day job because working for Martha Graham — 'Please work for this cultural icon,'" she quipped.

She was a frustrated actor at the time, but it helped teach her that art isn't just about the person taking center-stage.

"Art is a community experience, and I have moved around that community as both the player, and the tech person, and the costume person, and the writer," she said.

Baum and her husband, Jonathan, uprooted to Hillsdale, N.Y., seeking some more space to raise their son, Benjamin. (They later had a daughter, Catherine, too.)

"That was the beginning of a huge change for us because I let go of my career and really dedicated myself to being full-time with Ben," Baum said.

It wasn't easy.

"I was desperately lonely there," Baum said.

Less than two years later, the couple settled in Great Barrington, where Baum has made a habit of surrounding herself for more than 20 years: She is entrenched in the community, often hosting programs aimed at fostering female artistic expression. For about the last five years, she has taught the Powder Keg Women's Writing Program at Great Barrington's Ramsdell Public Library. The Wednesday night workshops, which will resume on March 27, are free, and child care is available.

"It's really important as an artist for me to hold the door open for other people," she said. "Ever since I was a little kid, I've sort of sniffed that feeling of exclusivity, like, 'Oh no, you can't come into this room because you're not qualified in some way.' I feel like it's really important for us to open the experience of art-making, whatever it is, to other people because you just do not know what change that could provide for someone's life."

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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