Alumni Q&A: Leslie Buchbinder ’75


Leslie Buchbinder majored in English at Northwestern University and later did graduate work there in performance studies. She began her career as a professional dancer with companies in Chicago and San Francisco, prior to working as an account executive at the arts public relations firm The Kreisberg Group in New York City. She then established her own arts communications company, LB-PR, in Chicago, which specialized in local and international communications for clients including Sara Lee Corporation, sponsor of a series of art museum exhibitions; The Art Institute of Chicago; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; The Israel Museum, Jerusalem; The Arts Club of Chicago; and many others. In 2011, she was nominated to the Committee on Prints and Drawings of The Art Institute of Chicago and to the Advisory Board of the Chicago Film Archives in 2012. She is the founder and artistic director of Pentimenti, a nonprofit film production company that just released its first film, Hairy Who & The Chicago Imagists, which also marks her directorial debut.

Hairy Who & The Chicago Imagists is a lavishly illustrated romp through Chicago Imagist art: the Second City scene that challenged Pop Art’s status quo in the 1960s, then faded from view. Forty years later, its funk and grit inspires artists from Jeff Koons to Chris Ware, making the Imagists the most famous artists you never knew. As Leslie further describes:

“An extraordinary group of artists—later known as the Chicago Imagists—entered my family’s life as I entered my adolescence. While gazing at these artists and their art with pubescent eyes, I was alternately disturbed and relieved, perplexed and enlightened. At the age of 14, I somehow coerced Ed Paschke and Roger Brown to spend an afternoon making holiday tree decorations with me. While we sat together forging ornaments out of flour, salt and water, I watched Ed’s and Roger’s agile hands alchemically transforming the slop into fully painted heads, torsos (and genitalia!), adorned with sparkles and pins. The day was magical—and a recognition that my life would be devoted to finding ways to unleash and manifest the unadulterated joy of childhood creating within grownup time.

Hairy Who & The Chicago Imagists celebrates the artist’s power to alter our sense of time and space. These artists have informed my life—and the lives of so many others—in ways that I never could fully apprehend until I had the great privilege of making this film. For several decades, Chicago was animated by a thrilling, art-provoked world of exhibitions, festive events and camaraderie. Today, time seems to be bending yet again: the artists collectively known as the Chicago Imagists are achieving ever-broader recognition among new generations of artists and art lovers around the world. Through this film, I pass on the gift of an intimate view of their art and lives to creative spirits everywhere.”

The arts have been always been part of your life. Where did you start and how did that passion evolve?
I started by performing with dance companies in Chicago—including Concert Dance and Akasha—then in dance companies and original musicals in San Francisco. When I moved to New York, I stopped dancing and considered focusing on acting; however, after an intensive two-year Meisner Technique course at Bill Esper’s Studio, I decided to stop performing. Dance had been my anchor to the stage, and injuries and age necessitated that I move on. At that juncture, I got involved in arts public relations via The Kreisberg Group, NYC; I grew pretty quickly from a receptionist into an account executive. After three years there, I moved back to Chicago and started my own arts PR firm. Sara Lee, which had been a client of The Kreisberg Group, hired me immediately to do PR for programs they were doing with the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Contemporary Art (the 1992 Armory Show) and Music of the Baroque. Other clients included the Field Museum, The Arts Club of Chicago and the Marwen Foundation. Eventually I went to grad school in performance studies at Northwestern University, where I studied with [theatre directors] Mary Zimmerman and Frank Galati. It was fantastic. I was trying to find a way to segue back into making art again. 

How did you decide to get involved in film?
Not long after my graduate studies, I decided I wanted to make this film about Hairy Who and the Chicago Imagists. I called MCA Curator Lynne Warren, a keeper of the Chicago Imagists’ flame for many years, whom I had known through the art world and my work with the MCA via Sara Lee. I asked her what she thought of this, given that I’d never made a film before. She told me to go for it, so I did! Getting Lynne’s imprimatur helped because she knew me both in a professional context and within the art world due to my background.

Before I started filming, I had been talking to artists Katie Kahn (a Parker alum) and John Sparagana, two of my best friends, about the project. I already had interviews lined up. Katie and John introduced me to writer/curator/gallerist John Corbett and his wife, writer/performer/professor Terri Kapsalis. John, along with his Corbett vs. Dempsey gallery partner Jim Dempsey, had already been exploring the art and legacies of the Hairy Who and Chicago Imagists artists. We met, we instantly clicked, and John came on board as interviewer and later scriptwriter of the film. Through John, I met Brian Ashby and Ben Kolak, who also came on board after they had completed their award-winning documentary Scrappers, which was on Roger Ebert’s Top 10 list for 2010. I needed cinematographers, a co-producer, Brian, and an editor, Ben. So that became the core of our team. We did 65 interviews and copious research; it ultimately took six years to make the film. I’m a “research-aholic,” and that comes back to Parker. When Bernie Markwell would quote George Santayana’s “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”—that’s the core of Pentimenti. The word “pentimento” (“pentimenti” being the plural) alludes to the vestiges of an earlier painting under a newer work—for example, in Picasso’s “The Old Guitarist,” you can see he painted over an earlier painting. Pentimenti are “re-visions” of the past as seen through the lenses of the present.

I believe there is very little actual “fact.” There are human interpretations of events and creations. So I wanted the film to reflect that there are lots of things that have happened in the art world; how do we think about them today? What’s interesting about Hairy Who and the Chicago Imagists is their influence on international artists like Jeff Koons, Peter Doig, Amy Sillman, Chris Ware, Kerry James Marshall, Sue Williams, Gary Panter and our film’s animator, Lilli Carré, among many more. What the Hairy Who and Chicago Imagists artists were playing with and exploring artistically was, at the time, a different lexicon than the New York artists were interested in. New York was still having its own oedipal crisis, trying to individuate from European art within a post-WWII America. These New York artists wanted to explore how Americans in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s might create an American art. For them it was dealing primarily with form. Work that was subject-based, figure-based, subtext-based, personal, was “out” (i.e., verboten) in the big-time art world of New York. Chicago had the advantage of being away from that art crisis. Without the art world’s klieg lights shining on Chicago, there was an artistic freedom here, whereas New York was a pressure cooker; there wasn’t a lot of room to maneuver or make a mistake.

There was a lot more we wanted to cover in the film, like the intersection between these artists and the theatre world, but—to quote my graduate studies teacher Mary Zimmerman—we didn’t want this to be an “overstuffed goose.” I’m interested in so many different things that the challenge was how to hone that into something that could sustain an audience for 105 minutes.

How did Parker influence the choices you’ve made since graduating?
Before I came to Parker for high school, I had grown up in the southern suburbs, where I felt like I didn’t fit. I was always interested in the arts and was a good student. There were kindred spirits but it wasn’t normative to be interested and excel at different things. It wasn’t cool to be smart and like school. Parker encouraged me to be the person I always was, someone who embraced the arts and learning in multifaceted ways, where it wasn’t judged as weird or bad. It wasn’t even questioned; it was a mode of existence integral to the ethos of the school from the very beginning: you are an entire person comprising your intellect, psyche, spirit, emotion. Everything you do in sports and arts and cognitive learning helps you grow as an entire person; no matter where you end up as a professional later, you bring as fulsome a person to those endeavors as possible. That for me was a lifesaver because that was how I had always functioned. I fit at Parker, and I not only fit, I thrived.

What are some of your favorite Parker memories?
Certain teachers were incredibly formative: Marie Stone, Bernie Markwell, Z [Pauline Zanetakos], Bart Wolgamot. When we all did Chorus, Special Chorus, madrigals, musicals and plays—all of the teachers who ran these programs provided us with something so extraordinary that we were all so lucky to be part of. And a lot of the teacher relationships become friendships. And they are still mentors in various ways.

Because I had excelled in genetics, [College Counselor] Pat Nagle wanted me to work with the geneticist George Beadle at the University of Chicago. Even though I didn’t want to do that, this is an example of the kind of opportunities Parker provides. I could have worked with a genetics pioneer, but I wanted to take a summer American Youth Hostel cycling trip on the East Coast with my classmates and closest friends Jill Kearney and John Kessler. You don’t realize how unusual some opportunities are until you meet other people later who didn’t have them; those we didn’t take advantage of, well, sometimes that’s OK. I wasn’t going to be a geneticist. But those kinds of relationships Parker has with professors and professionals all over the world is irreplaceable. It’s an alternate universe we were all privileged to be part of.

What’s coming next?
One of the great aspects of working with a team is that you gather the most brilliant people together, and, using the surrealist vernacular, it’s like creating an exquisite corpse, where you fold the paper and each person does a different body part. Our team on Hairy Who brought our different knowledge bases and perspectives to the same material. That has been amazing. So we are working together again on my next film, which is about the artist H.C. Westermann, who was a model for many of the Chicago Imagists.

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