Suzi Banks Baum and The New Illuminations: One of WAM’s 2016 Beneficiaries

Suzi Banks Baum has been a friend of WAM Theatre since 2012. A resident of Great Barrington, Suzi is active in the Berkshire community as a writer, an artist, an educator, and an actor. She is the editor and publisher of An Anthology of Babes: 36 Women Give Motherhood a Voice, and has written for Literary Mama, Rebelle Society, Mother Writer Mentor, The Mid and she has been a monthly contributor to Berkshire Family Focus. Suzi is the producer of Out of the Mouths of Babes for the annual Berkshire Festival of Women Writers. She has written for and performed in Motherhood Outloud at the Unicorn Theater and for Boston production of Expressing Motherhood, and has a long history in theater in New York City. Her visual work has been exhibited at No. Six Depot and Gallery 51 in the Berkshires, in the Brooklyn Art Library and the William Bonifas Fine Arts Center in Escanaba, Michigan.

Suzi Banks Baum is a beneficiary of WAM Theatre’s upcoming production of The Bakelite Masterpiece. Learn more about past WAM beneficiaries here.

WAM: What brought you to the Berkshires?

Suzi Banks Baum: I was raised in Upper Michigan and graduated from Northern Michigan University with a degree in theatre. I spent three seasons in Kentucky working at the Actors Theatre of Louisville. Then, 20 years ago, my husband and I moved to the Berkshires. Prior to that we lived in New York City where I pursued my acting career. We had a great life in the city, and we lived very simply, but once our son was born it was a lot hauling everything in and out, up and down stairs. I thought “He can’t be crawling on this grubby floor forever!” so we moved and I’m so glad we did. I’m connected to the creative community here, as an artist and teacher. I do service work as much as I can. My family and I are well integrated in to the Berkshires.

WAM Theatre: When did you first hear about WAM and get involved?

Suzi: It was 2012 and I was getting ready to produce my event for the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers when Kristen van Ginhoven and I agreed to meet on the front porch of The Red Lion Inn. We immediately recognized each other’s strength and how we could support each other. We had a wonderful conversation about our work. I am a theatre artist as well as a book artist and a writer, but I had been out of the theatre for most of my mothering life. Kristen and I talked about social media and social good. She gave me some powerful ideas about what could be next for me. Kristen encouraged me to do double philanthropy with the book I was about to publish An Anthology of Babes 36 Women Give Motherhood a Voice. Because of that suggestion, I have been able to donate $8,000 to CHP and VIM of the Berkshires from book sales. Women in theatre think alike. We think collaboratively. We don’t think of ourselves as standing alone on the stage. This is the core inspiration for all my work.

Subsequently, I submitted my resume for the 2012 Berkshire-Capital Region 24 Hour Theatre Project, which was held at Shakespeare & Company, and had the pleasure of performing in People of the Corn, which Cindy Parrish wrote and Corinna May directed.  It was so exciting to be back on stage and work with that powerful group of theatre artists. I am always impressed by how committed WAM is to regional artists.

I also had writing accepted as part of the WAM piece for the 10X10 Festival directed by Sara Katzoff in 2013. And I wrote and performed a piece in Motherhood Out Loud, which Jayne Atkinson directed in 2014.

My relationship with WAM started with friendship and collaboration. It moved on to be part of WAM presentations, and now I am a beneficiary! WAM is an important part of my extended creative family here in the Berkshires.

WAM: How did you come to be one of our 2016 beneficiaries?

Suzi: When Kristen came to hear the first talk I gave about my Armenian project at the Stanmeyer Gallery in June I had NO idea that I was being considered as a beneficiary. So a few days later she called and asked me to come to the office before Thursday at noon. I couldn’t think of what she wanted. When Kristin asked if I would accept being a beneficiary, I just about fell over. It was the first time someone outside my intimate circle fully acknowledged the potential of this project. The gift Kristen gives me is a vision of the greater role of women’s work in the world. When we believe in each other enough, things you thought were impossible happen.

I am honored to become part of this effort that changes women’s lives all over the world. I am inspired by the other beneficiaries. Susie Walker Weekes, who was your 2014 connection with Mother of Peace-Ilovo Orphanage, has been helpful to me in figuring out how to best benefit from the WAM gift. When I speak in other places about WAM’s work, people ask “Wow! Tell me more about WAM Theatre.”

WAM: How did you come to connect with women artists in Gyumri, Armenia?

Suzi: I traveled there in March of this year with National Geographic photographer and humanitarian John Stanmeyer as part of a visual storytelling workshop. We gathered in the historic cultural center of Gyumri, which is still recovering from the 1988 earthquake, rocked by poverty, rubble, and unemployment. I interviewed 25 women artists there, listened to their stories of how they became artists, how they live, how their family life influences their work, and how societal and cultural pressures challenge their creative practices. In each case, I was struck by the grit and devotion in each of these women.

Suzi with Kristen and Kristen with Isabelle Kaplan (BIC Board Member) at the Unicorn Theatre
Suzi with Kristen and Kristen with Isabelle Kaplan (BIC Board Member) at the Unicorn Theatre.

WAM: Tell us about the project that WAM is helping to support.

Suzi:  The New Illuminations, a three-week artist residency in Gyumri, Armenia, was born of that trip with John and our workshop. The project continues to gather interest and momentum both in the US and in Armenia. It is my fervent belief that if we engage devoted Armenian women artists in the book arts, link them to an existing and honored tradition of book making, fresh voices will rise up through newly illuminated pages. This work will lift the dignity of these women and give power to their work.

I will travel to Yerevan for three days in November where I will be meeting artists, buying supplies for the upcoming workshop, and talking to other interested organizations. Then, along with my translator, Annie Ginyosan, we will head to Gyumri where I will run a four-day book immersion with 10 women artists. This workshop will supply each artist with a daily stipend, a teaching handbook translated into Armenian, all art supplies and a full lunch each day. After that, there will be several opportunities in an elementary school where I will teach two hour-long workshops with a few of my artists as assistants. During the balance of the trip I will conduct interviews with more women artists, deepen my relationship with the women I have already met and travel to outlying villages to connect with other women artists.

I am excited to collaborate with Anna Gargarian of HAYP Pop Up gallery of Yerevan. Anna will curate an exhibit, Codex: Illuminating Women’s Experience Through Contemporary Manuscripts, which opens November 18 in an historic building in Gyumri, and afterwards in Yerevan.

I envision this as the start of a five-year project. I want the Armenian women artists to immerse themselves in the process and then go out and teach and exhibit in other places around Armenia.

I have other work going on in my life, but these days I wake up every morning with dreams of the Armenian women artists I met working in this workshop. I have never been so engaged; my subconscious is getting that space ready for me. And now you are bringing all the impetus and importance of WAM’s work right up alongside me. There is something special about that witness and the feeling of being recognized and supported by other people who work just as hard to help women’s voices be heard in the world.

WAM: And specifically how will you be using the money WAM raises for you? We aren’t funding the entire project.

Suzi: The WAM money is earmarked to pay a stipend to each woman artist in the New Illuminations book-building workshop. That’s right, they will be paid to learn. Armenian women are very dependent on their families, especially their husbands and fathers, and we want to show that women’s contributions are integral too. I do this work so that my daughter Catherine sees that women’s lives are different in other places. We have to be aware of inequities wherever they exist and address them with compassion and attention. For me, that attention rises through sharing the creative process, just like WAM!

We have a special evening planned for the 7:30 pm preview performance of The Bakelite Masterpiece on Thursday, September 29. Anna Gargarian of Yerevan, Armenia and Armenian American artist activist Dana Walrath of Burlington, Vermont, will join us for a pre-show gathering and conversation over wine and cheese about this project and women’s lives in Armenia. When you call the BTG box office (413-274-8122) tell them you want to be part of the BAUM group. The cost of your ticket buys you both the event and the show. With your help we can bring this project to a community of women who need an infusion of joy and inspiration.

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