Delectably Ed Bing Lee
When I was a little girl, our extended family would gather a few times a year at Ratners, a kosher dairy restaurant on New York’s Lower East Side, to kibbitz over blueberry cheese blintzes, matzoh ball soup, borscht with sour cream, latkes (potato pancakes), mock chopped liver (vegetarian, as keeping kosher means not mixing milk and meat at the same meal), pierogi (though my grandma Eva Klein’s were better, butterier, with lashings of almost-burnt onions ladled over the handmade potato dumplings, her thumbprints scalloping each pinched edge), chewy onion rolls, smoked fish, kasha varnishkes and dill pickles. And even if we hadn't any room left, we’d order a platter of raisin- and walnut-filled rugelach pastries. In the company of our cousins Oscar and Rachel (cousins themselves, married despite the taboo, an understandable post-Holocaust marriage of familiarity and comfort), and a family tree of grandparents and great-aunts and uncles and first and second and third cousins, from the old country via Brooklyn, Queens, Westchester, Long Island and New Jersey, the conversation across the table loud and animated, the food reassuring and sepia-toned, the brunch buoyant and clannish, where outcasts from disappeared villages in Eastern Europe could come together and feel at home, trading jokes and news in Yiddish and heavily accented English, about who had died, who was sick, who was doing extremely well and who not-so-well, their American children getting reacquainted with each other, at first reluctantly and then mourning the parting at meal’s end, tasting of both the bitter and the sweet, presided over by the grouchiest old waiters, as sour as the garlic dills my mother never tired of telling me, even now, probably came from the briny barrels at Ba-tampte Pickle Products (“a nickel a shtickle!”), a business (doing extremely well) established by our cousins the Silbersteins, managed today by Bebe and Meyer's sons, Barry and Howie Silberstein, and grandsons, Scott and Seth Silberstein.
Fiber artist Ed Bing Lee (b. 1933) is the child of Chinese immigrant parents, and while the Chinese were ghettoised in a segregated San Francisco, post Pearl Harbour, Japanese-Americans were either repatriated or interned until the last camp closed in 1945, with devastating effect on America’s immigrant communities, who were viewed with suspicion, de-Americanized. When I came across Ed Bing Lee’s Delectable series of hand-knotted food sculptures at the prestigious Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show, at which he twice received the Farelli Award for Excellence in Fiber, I was drawn to the tantalising display of hyper real plates of so-called junk food, transfixed by the skill and artistry required to build, out of knotted linen and embroidery floss, a tempting cheeseburger with everything on it, a vivid slice of Key Lime pie, a melting strawberry ice cream cone, a ball-game-worthy hot dog in a bun with a squirt of mustard, a box of movie popcorn, a birthday party Confetti cupcake with multicolored sprinkles and a Thanksgiving dessert wedge of pumpkin pie festooned with a dollop of whipped cream, as irresistible as they were inedible. I thought of my father, who came over from Iraq as a young man to study engineering at the University of Michigan, aspiring to American citizenship, rejecting Middle Eastern cuisine and his own language, choosing instead to eat frozen TV dinners and improve his command of English by practicing 30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary, a book he later encouraged his children to utilize. I wondered whether Bing Lee had been similarly impelled by his “very Chinese parents” to become more American than Americans, and considered his work deconstructing iconic American Heritage fare, then intricately reconstructed using colored thread and thousands upon thousands of knots, as a series of affectionate postcards, addressed to a country he never fully felt embraced by.
Bing Lee worked as a commercial fabric designer in New York and Philadelphia and later became an instructor at Moore College of Art and Design, The University of the Arts, and the Art Institute of Philadelphia, but he explained “I did not do any art work until I left the world of commercial fabric design. I was just like a loom. I could weave the fabric, but it was not me.” He describes the tension between art and craft, noting that “The American Craft Museum has been renamed the Art and Design Museum. There are crafts people who make art. Hopefully I’m one of them. Craft can be an end, to perfect that physical action. There are flaws in every piece I make and I ignore them. What an artist does is to try and make that craft go into a metaphysical sphere, where its sensation, its identity is not as an object but a statement.” He notes the profound effect Andy Warhol had on his own evolution as an artist, in presenting the most common things and making art out of it. “Warhol made it possible for me to present myself as an artist.”
We talk about food, and Ed remembers seeing artificial food displays when he lived in Japan during the Korean War. “The Japanese made fake food a high art, artificially stimulating your appetite. I think of my food as concrete, permanent representations of memories, of the baseball games watched while eating hot dogs, popcorn at the movies. The technique is very tedious, but the work, kind of contrary, is almost like a toy; the work doesn’t betray the work, but portrays a kind of light-heartedness.”
We talk about technique, about making sales, the effect of winning awards including the Pew Fellowship in the Arts, and the struggle to move on from a very identifiable series like Delectables that both freed and framed him. “When I first showed the food series, they didn’t make any sales at all. I only sold one piece. I feel that the public requires at least five years to get used to the idea of your work. I stopped doing the Delectables ten years ago. I will not see the fruits of this new work because I will be long dead.”
At 83, Ed Bing Lee works in his Philadelphia studio within his hi-rise apartment. “My goal is at least two hours a day.” Multiple boxes, stacks of small drawers and shelving house a wide variety of materials: spools of multicolored thread, coils of twine, satin ribbon, paper ribbon, waxed linen, hemp, raffia, plastic, shoe laces, a wooden bowl full of string, a candle, pieces in progress – an ice cream cone and a panda bear sit alongside completed pieces like Four and Twenty Blackbirds, Song of Sixpence and Life is Just (A Bowl of Cherries), part of his narrative series, sculptures that tell a story “like Renaissance annunciation. A story that has layers.” I admire several exquisitely knotted small misshapen baskets on Plexiglas plinths, from Bing Lee’s Meditations on the Chawan series. “What do you use them for? You use them for your spirit.”
Ed Bing Lee showed me what he’d been playing with most recently: a layered square of loosely knotted white string, an ordered tangle reminiscent of fishing net, conveying both delicacy and strength, an obstinacy. “All the work I’ve done until now has been very solid. I want to give it air. Rather than concealing, it’s revealing.” He talked about the mist that clings to the damp earth, even as it rises, a familiar evening occurrence where I live in the flat midlands of Ireland, surrounded by fields, and about the migration that ageing engenders. “As I grow older, I like the idea of personal identification. A freeing up of my own spirit. Space is important, air is important. I think I am moving into that sphere. I hope to connect in a different way.”
In Mary Pipher’s book Another Country: Navigating the Emotional Terrain of Our Elders, she details what it is to live in a landscape where all familiar markers seem to have disappeared: friends, family, neighbors, buildings, hearing and vision, replaced by fear and mounting loss. Ed Bing Lee places his latest piece on a table, a ravel of white, seemingly unfinished even when it is, and wonders what the reaction to it will be. “Hopefully, the viewer will say Gee, I don’t know what he’s thinking. Maybe he’s trying to…” Bing Lee’s voice trails off, as he seeks to understand what he’s trying to say with this, his most ethereal knotted series yet.