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Issue 15: Bernice Bing

By Melanie Gasmen-Fleck. 

It’s almost time to pick up your paintbrushes! Our next issue, issue 15, is all about abstract artist Bernice Bing. In this issue, we celebrate different aspects of Bernice—how she was Chinese American, an activist, and a lesbian. Her bold masterpieces combined her Western upbringing and East Asian culture, making a lasting presence in fine art.

Issue 15 brings modern-museum fun to your fingertips with artsy activities and colorful DIYs—aka kids are in for hours of cool projects! We also filled it with ways to practice self-awareness, which Bernice exercised throughout her creative process and career. Kids are never too young to embrace their individuality!

Learn more about Bernice’s life, work, and activism before the issue comes out. Want your copy first? Subscribe now!

Introducing Bernice Bing

Jerry Burchard, Bernice Bing, n.d (c) The Estate of Jerry Burchard. Used with permission.

Bernice “Bingo” Bing was born on April 10, 1936, in San Francisco’s Chinatown neighborhood. At five years old, her mother died, and afterward, Bernice lived in many foster homes with white families and at an orphanage with other Chinese-American children. But she was strong throughout her loss, and was rebellious too.

However, Bernice often felt different from everyone else. She didn’t feel like she fit in with white households, and only really learned about her Chinese heritage when she sometimes lived with her grandmother in Oakland. She started using drawing as an outlet to think about her feelings and express them. 

Bernice won national art contests throughout high school, earning her a National Scholastic Award to attend California College of Arts and Craft (CCAC) in Oakland. She majored in advertising but later switched to painting. 

At CCAC, Japanese calligrapher and Zen painter Saburo Hasegawa trained her. He introduced her to Asian art, meditation, and the practice of being self-aware—especially regarding her East Asian identity. After a semester, she transferred to the San Francisco Art Institute, where she studied abstract expressionism and graduated with both a Bachelors and Masters degree in Fine Arts.

In 1961, shortly after graduation, Bernice became even more active in the Bay Area art scene, heavily influenced by the expressive Beat era. During a time when a one-woman solo show was rare, she held her first solo show at the trending Batman Gallery that received critical acclaim.

Bernice’s large canvases blended shapes, patterns, and vibrant colors, like in her famous piece Mayacamas No. 6. (See more of her work at Sonoma Valley Museum of Art.) When she was in her late twenties, Bernice moved to the California countryside, where the sweeping natural landscape inspired her work. 

In 1967, Bernice attended a residency at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, where she learned more about Buddhist meditation and felt inspired to do more social good. For the next 20 years, Bernice dedicated her life to community programs. Her work included co-founding and becoming the first Executive Director of the South of Market Cultural Center, an art space supporting marginalized groups through contemporary art. She also mentored other artists and helped launch the city’s first Asian-American art festival.

Bernice also took on Chinatown’s Neighborhood Arts Program, where she introduced underserved youth to the arts. And she co-founded the Scroungers Center for Reusable Art Parts, an eco-conscious warehouse that upcycles discarded materials for art projects.

In 1984, Bernice went back to her cultural roots and visited China for the first time to study calligraphy and give lectures on abstract expressionism. Chinese calligraphy influenced her work significantly, with her later pieces combining elements of Western culture with Chinese calligraphy’s bold brushstrokes, representing more of her identity than ever before. 

Bernice embraced her Chinese American identity and resumed exhibiting her work again across the U.S., including the Asian Traditions/Modern Expressions exhibition. She became active in the Asian American Women Artists Association, and in 1996, she was the first Asian American artist to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Women’s Caucus for Art. Two years later, she passed away from complications with lupus at the age of 62.

As a woman, a person of color, and a member of the LGBTQ+ community, Bernice overcame intersectional obstacles many do not face in their lifetime. And she did so with selflessness. Bernice leaves behind a legacy of iconic abstract art and a long list of social change programs. She dedicated her life to uplift other artists, and it’s time we keep her memory alive and shine a brighter light on her.