Obituary: Paul Binai / Artist, ex-curator of Carnegie Museum of Art

June 3, 1932 - May 15, 2014


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Paul Binai was as multidimensional as his art.

Friends describe the artist and former curator of the Carnegie Museum of Art as erudite, cultured, intelligent, empathetic, funny, humble, proper and quiet. While he had his art exhibited throughout Pennsylvania, the U.S. and the world, he also loved a so-bad-it's-good horror film.

Mr. Binai "used to find the worst movies in town and go to [them]. He enjoyed the lowlife, he found that interesting, but on the other end he was so sophisticated," recalled Joseph Shepler, a friend and fellow painter.

Mr. Binai of Indiana, Pa., died Thursday of congestive heart failure. He was 81.

He was born in Lancaster in 1932 and had a remarkable lineage. He was the grandson of a former ambassador from Siam, now Thailand, and of one of the first women in Europe to be admitted into the medical practice. His father was adopted by King Rama of Siam and eventually succeeded in becoming the first Thai national to become a naturalized American citizen, according to biographical notes.

Mr. Binai studied art at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, at Yale University and in France. He would become a curator at the Carnegie Museum, the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art and the Detroit Institute of Art. In 1994, he started to focus on producing his own art. His work has been exhibited at local venues -- including the University of Pittsburgh, Penn State University New Kensington and Indiana University of Pennsylvania -- as well as in New York, Paris and elsewhere.

Inspired by a range of influences, but especially by German Expressionism, he brought the empathy for which friends remember him into his art. Mr. Binai was not afraid to address difficult or controversial issues in his works. His first painting, "Blue Shutters," from 1952, was provocative for its depiction of scantily clad women and for its representational character in an age of increasingly abstract art. His pieces touched on such subjects as the Holocaust -- he had a friend who had spent time in a concentration camp -- capital punishment, marginalized groups and suicide.

The causes "touched his heart, and sometimes his stuff looks dark but, in my opinion, it's the pain he felt for those situations," said Rebecca Schultz, a longtime friend. "People sometimes found his stuff offensive, kind of rough, but ... it was, for him, a way of working out the pain of the situation."

With his art, Mr. Binai was as modest as he was accomplished.

"He was a very quiet person. He never gave an opinion on his art. He let the viewer express the feelings that he had, that emanated to that viewer, which is a remarkable thing," recalled Toni Uricchio of O'Hara.

Ms. Uricchio met Mr. Binai when she was a docent at the Carnegie Museum and he was curator.

"I was so impressed by his lectures to the docents," she said. "He was just the kind of personality that was enormously talented, very well-known, but very low-key, very humble. Everyone who knew him had such enormous pride in knowing him."

Mr. Shepler treasured the support Mr. Binai offered to local artists like himself.

"He was the most courteous and the most sophisticated and the most cultured person I ever met ... a fantastic artist who had a clear and distinct vision, and he kept his vision regardless of any response," he said. "He was an inspiration to me."

Mr. Binai had no surviving family. He will be cremated with services held at noon on June 7 at Christ Episcopal Church in Indiana, Pa.

Correction, May 18, 2014: The date of the memorial service was incorrect in an earlier version of this story.


Elizabeth Bloom: ebloom@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1750 or on Twitter @BloomPG.

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