Mother of invention: WSW’s Barbara Leoff Burge

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The two biggest annual fundraising events for the Women’s Studio Workshop (WSW) are typically the annual Gala Dinner & Auction – coming up this Sunday at Mohonk Mountain House – and the wintertime Chili Bowl Fiesta, when hundreds of fans of the Binnewater-based arts collective eagerly line up to pay anywhere from $5 to $75 for a one-of-a-kind handmade ceramic bowl heaped with zesty chili. At the last such event, back in February, WSW’s acknowledged Founding Mother was holding court in a hallway at the Rosendale Recreation Center, generously doling out hugs and jokes and her trademark grin that somehow mixes sweet innocence and sly humor in equal measure.

To the art world, where she arguably has done more than anyone to put contemporary women artists on the map and establish paper arts and the “artist’s book” as media to be taken seriously, she’s known as Barbara Leoff Burge. But to all those fond friends and admirers from Rosendale, where she still teaches, New Paltz, where she still lives, and many miles around, she’s just Babs. “Can you believe that I’m turning 80 this year?” she asked this correspondent at the Fiesta. I couldn’t. Her hair may be a little grayer, but Babs looks as fit and feisty and luminous now as she did at 70…or 60 or even 50. And maybe it was the chili, but she’s every bit as full of beans as she ever was, appreciatively eyeing any good-looking man who walked by and telling funny anecdotes.

Another bit of exciting news that Babs shared that day was the fact that WSW will be honoring her legacy at the Gala on September 22, along with Stone Ridge entrepreneurs and philanthropists Laurel and Tim Sweeney. A continuous slideshow of artworks from Leoff Burge’s long career will be screened, and “Five or six pieces that Babs has donated will be on auction,” WSW office manager Sandra Brown confirmed this week.


A comprehensive tribute to Leoff Burge’s oeuvre is long overdue, especially considering the barriers to women artists that she has faced since her days at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago back in the 1950s. Frustration with the lack of opportunities to get her innovative works shown was a big part of her motivation in organizing WSW in the first place. It’s an oft-told tale how co-founders Ann Kalmbach and Anita Wetzel met as students of Babs’s then-husband, Ken Burge, as art students at SUNY-New Paltz. They began having informal work sessions with Babs. Fueled by shared indignation about the sexism that then prevailed in their field, Tana Kellner joined the group soon after meeting Kalmbach in graduate school. In 1974, the four talented friends took the plunge and started their own arts collective specifically for women – a place, to fill the void “between academia and amateurism” – in a house that Leoff Burge had rented on the corner of John and James Streets in Rosendale.

And so it was that WSW was born. One is tempted to say, “The rest is history,” but that makes it all sound too easy. The once-maverick organization, soon to enter its fifth decade of operation, has certainly established itself as an iconic fixture of contemporary art training, especially in the paper arts and screenprinting. Its Binnewater Arts Center is the go-to place for anyone, female or male, who wants to learn from the masters how to make an artist’s book. But staying afloat financially from year to year remains a perennial challenge, and WSW depends heavily on good turnout at its fundraising events to keep providing workshops, residencies and internships.

While no longer officially on staff at WSW, Leoff Burge remains on the Board of Directors (as does her ex-husband), and “She’s still very much involved in the operations at Women’s Studio Workshop,” according to Brown. Virtually every poster used by WSW to publicize its events over the decades has been a Babs creation. The classes that she still teaches regularly at WSW’s Summer Arts Institute tend to have provocative titles like “Absurdity by Design,” reflecting the zany sense of humor that informs so much of Leoff Burge’s work, making the political palatable and gently forcing us to apprehend the world in new ways.

For example, one of her most widely collected limited-edition artist’s books – copies have been acquired by the Museum of Modern Art, the National Art Library in London and 20 other museums, libraries and universities – is titled Kunst Comix: A Phoney Art History (1983), and consists of “11 pictures parodying Russian icons, Indian Rajput paintings and Japanese prints, all dedicated to Arshile Gorky and Walt Disney.” Improbable Tangentialities (2004) is about “the juxtaposition of the ‘regular’ with the improbable,” such as “beaks busted with toasters” and “penguins on the streets of suburbs.”

In her book art, the mixtures of such media as drawing, collage and color photocopying reflect Leoff Burge’s playful-yet-pointed attitude and aesthetic, and still feel fresh despite the mainstreaming in recent years of the artform that she pioneered. There is also a long waiting list to obtain one of her ongoing series of hand-painted ceramic tiles.

For many reasons, the well-earned celebration of Leoff Burge’s contributions to WSW and the art world in general should be a joyful occasion. The $125 ticket price for this Sunday’s Gala will provide supporters an all-day pass to the Mohonk Mountain House grounds and parking “up top,” as well as a cocktail hour beginning at 6 p.m., an international gourmet buffet dinner at 6:30 and speakers and presentations at 7:30. The auction to follow will include not only artworks by Leoff Burge and many others, but also such self-indulgences as ten days in Tuscany or a week in San Miguel de Allende, a lobster feast for six from Gadaleto’s or a private sail on the 30-foot Hudson River sloop Élan, an international wine-of-the-month subscription or a microdermabrasion treatment.

To purchase tickets to Women’s Studio Workshop’s 2013 annual Gala Dinner and Auction, call (845) 658-9133 or visit PayPal is accepted.

Women’s Studio Workshop Gala Dinner & Auction, Sunday, September 22, 6 p.m. (grounds open 7 a.m.), $125, Mohonk Mountain House, 1000 Mountain Rest Road, New Paltz; (845) 658-9133,