PPH Passing Strange

Befriending Petruk: The creative life of Martha Banyas

The exquisite enamel artist and traveler to Bali and beyond in pursuit of her art created a legacy of storytelling and beauty.

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Enamel artist and world traveler Martha Banyas. Photo courtesy Banyas family.
Enamel artist and world traveler Martha Banyas. Photo courtesy Banyas family.

I prefer synthesis to deconstruction. I work to weave together, not tear apart.

                                                                                                            ~ Martha Banyas

Martha loved Petruk. He was her muse and accompanied her in the studio where she worked in enamels, sketched, and was surrounded by her many treasures from years of international travel.

Martha met Petruk in Bali. Petruk is a punakawan, or attendant, in Javanese Wayang, an ancient form of puppet theater, or shadowplay. Son of Semar, Petruk is a trickster and provides comic relief in the drama. As such, he doesn’t abide by conventions. He speaks his mind freely, makes political jabs, pokes fun, and in general lightens things up.

Petruk is tall and walks with long strides. His features are elongated and he’s crosse-eyed. Like any good jokester, he’s mischievous and will steal and cheat you. But he’s also a protector and has the kind of energy that keeps you alert, humble, and laughing.

Petruk, the artist's muse. Detail from "Guardians: Restoring Balance," 2010, by Martha Banyas.
Petruk, the artist’s muse. Detail from “Guardians: Restoring Balance,” 2010, by Martha Banyas.

It was the late ’60s when Martha arrived in Portland from Ohio with an MA in Printmaking and a BS in Art Education. Her sister Susan was already here and another younger sister, Rebecca, would make the move, too.  

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Martha accepted a teaching position in printmaking and metalsmithing at Mt. Hood Community College. Not long thereafter she made a friend at a party who would, years later, become her husband and closest companion, Michael Hoeye.

Enamel is a fire art, and an ancient one. It goes back to 1300 B.C.E. in Egypt, some think, though enameling is generally considered to have begun in earnest in Greece around the Fifth Century B.C.E. And glass itself is comprised of silica, which has its source in the primeval history of the earth. Put silica dust and pigment on a metal ground and heat it to a high temperature and you’ve made enamel.

Creating art with enamel takes the process to a whole other level. It can be a risky affair. If any of a number of variables aren’t carefully controlled, what comes out of the kiln will be a failure.

In 1972 Martha had enrolled in a two-week course at the Penland School of Craft with the esteemed enamelist Harold B. “Bill” Helwig, which gave her the confidence to commit to enamel as her primary medium for artmaking, aided by her skill in drawing and passion for color. In time she became a master of enameling techniques, and even pioneered some of her own.

Martha Banyas, "Ancestor Brooch," 1981.
Martha Banyas, “Ancestor Brooch,” 1981.

A Fulbright scholarship in 1981 shifted Martha’s vision farther westward. After spending the summer in Hong Kong and Taiwan with her Mt. Hood colleagues, she decided to take two weeks to visit Bali before returning home. It was a life-changing excursion. Martha was smitten by the rich traditional culture she found there and the fine workmanship of village artisans.

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Within a few years she was back in Bali to apprentice with the renowned mask carver Oda Bagus Anon in Ubud. It wasn’t long before she was exhibiting masks and human-sized puppets of her own at the Jamison/Thomas Gallery in Portland. But the pull of Asia didn’t abate.

In 1985 Martha retired from teaching to focus full-time on traveling and immersing herself in the arts and crafts of Indonesia, Thailand, Nepal, Turkey, Hungary where her family roots lay, and other countries that had well-preserved folk traditions.

I am a technical enamelist, but at heart I am first of all a storyteller.

To fund her new peripatetic life, Martha became a merchant as well as a scholar of the fascinating cultures she encountered. She bought for herself, of course—like so many artists, Martha was an avid collector throughout her life—but quickly she was shopping for friends back home as well.

In 1985 Martha held her first Apa Ini? sale at her home studio near Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard in  Portland. Apa Ini?, which means what is it?, became a Portland institution for those fortunate to have heard about it over the next twenty years, a place where people who loved beautiful handmade objects, tribal arts, and unusual home furnishings loved to gather biannually.

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But Martha saw her mission with Apa Ini? as more than assembling a colorful bazaar of amazing merchandise. She wanted her customers to know the provenance of the treasures they acquired. Her hand-written notes on labels were comprehensive, novelistic, and artifacts worth keeping themselves. Often she hosted evening slide show talks to share with her friends and serious clients what she’d learned about the textiles or puppets or folk clothing she was selling. Martha remained an educator throughout her life, whether she was in a classroom or not.

Martha Banyas in northern Thailand, 1991.
Martha Banyas in northern Thailand, 1991. Photo courtesy Banyas family.

Anyone who was lucky enough to be invited to travel with Martha on her annual shopping trips saw another side of her, as these memories from some of her traveling companions make clear:

“When we arrived in the village, everyone came rushing out to greet us like we were some long-lost relative. They all knew Martha and loved selling to her. Martha explained to me that if you’re doing business, you’re a guest, not a tourist.”

“She was like a Silk Road trader, making her way through Central Asia and Eastern Europe, always on the move in search of the next marvelous find.”

“Once I was in Turkey with Martha and we ended up in a back alley to meet some guys with suitcases full of textiles. She was fearless in that way. And she was a tough barterer. She wouldn’t hesitate to walk away from any deal. I think that’s why people liked her so much. They respected her business acumen. She both took pleasure in making a deal and was highly disciplined at the same time.”

“I was in northern Thailand with Martha when we came across a building full of antiques; Martha couldn’t resist. We left there with stuff strapped all over our bodies and to every inch of the motorcycle.”

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“Every night when we got back to the hotel, Martha would make a log of everything she’d purchased during the day, down to each glass bead!”

“Wherever we went, she knew where to stay, which stand to eat at, who to hire as a driver.
She was super organized but there was also room for spontaneity. We always had a ton of fun.”

“Martha left a global trail of friendships.”

A cheerleader, cornet player in band, and enthusiastic high schooler, Martha’s sociable personality never changed. She cherished her friends and regaled them with parties—often one amidst her beloved flower beds in summer and indoors with her famous cabbage rolls and a warm fire in winter.

Martha Banyas, "Divisions and Deliberations," 2020.
Martha Banyas, “Divisions and Deliberations,” 2020.

Martha returned to her artistic practice full-time after closing Apa Ini? in 2005, which by then had grown to fill a two-story house plus garden pavilion in southeast Portland.

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Enamel endures. Enamel is the definition of archival permanence. It survives for centuries. For millennia. With that in mind, I try to create works that justify that endurance, carrying forward stories from our time and place to speak with affection and compassion to other people, in other times, and other places.

Martha Banyas, preparatory notes on a drawing for a "Valley and Shadow" panel.
Martha Banyas, preparatory notes on a drawing for a “Valley and Shadow” panel.

Enameling is a meticulous craft. The same drive to track inventory, balance the books, and archive her collections served Martha well in the studio. She carefully documented her technical experiments and made copious notes about compounds, colors, and temperatures.

Anyone who visited Martha in her studio, where the kiln she bought in 1966 held pride of place, would be encircled by the many souvenirs of her inquiring mind.

Martha liked to dive deeply into whatever captured her interest, whether it was Ikat textiles, the formation of tide pools along the beach, or tattoos. Her library was eclectic and substantial.

A studio wall with Martha’s color tests for her enamel works.
A studio wall with Martha’s color tests for her enamel works.

Martha didn’t keep secrets. She freely shared what she had discovered in her experiments with enamel—the use of blackboard, Mason stains, layering, pixie dust (micas), drawing with pencils—for which the enamelists community revered her. Her workshops and teaching skills are legendary.

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In 2022 she was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Enamelist Society.

Martha Banyas, "Guardians: Restoring Balance," from her Valley and Shadow series, 2010. Petruk, the artist's muse, is the middle figure.
Martha Banyas, “Guardians: Restoring Balance,” from her Valley and Shadow series, 2010. Petruk, the artist’s muse, is the middle figure.

Towards the end of 2008 Martha was diagnosed with breast cancer. Suddenly she knew she had no time to waste. She decided to document her journey through the valleys and shadows of cancer by executing twelve three-dimensional vitreous enamel sculptures that explore life’s primordial dualities: life and death, beauty and trauma, darkness and light, moon and sun, sickness and health, yin and yang, the known and the unknown.

Titled “Valley and Shadow: Another Life,” the ambitious project took five years to complete. The wall pieces reflect Martha’s deep embrace of Indonesian folklore and cosmology. Petruk, of course, is there, as are other mythological spirits who shepherded Martha through her medical ordeal and emotional odyssey.

The wall panels are intricate, luminous, stratified constructions. They are the work of an artist at the height of her technical and imaginative powers and convey, through the use of symbols and imagery, the central concerns of Martha’s life: storytelling, artistry, knowledge, curiosity, adventure, cultural exchange, materiality, hard work, friendship, and joy.

Martha Banyas, "Radiant Body," from her "Valley and Shadow" series, 2011.
Martha Banyas, “Radiant Body,” from her “Valley and Shadow” series, 2011.

Thirteen years later, Martha’s cancer returned. She underwent new treatments, then suspended them and spent the remaining six months of her life living with grace and dignity. Martha never abandoned a challenging task.

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It was during this period that she received a call from the Metal Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. They would take her studio—tools, supplies, maquettes, powders, and all—and create the Martha Banyas Enamel Studio in their education wing, which is now slated to open in 2025. They also wanted the twelve “Valley and Shadow” panels to add to their significant holdings of her work. It was a source of much contentment for Martha to know that her resources and creative output would support and enrich the lives of others.

Martha died peacefully at home last October with Petruk watching over her.  

An exhibition of Martha’s work including the “Valley and Shadow” series, will be held at the Metal Museum from July to September, 2024. In conjunction with the show, the museum has issued a call for submissions to the enameling community to participate in an Enamel Community Quilt in honor of Martha’s fearlessness in transforming her confrontation with illness into a moving, beautiful work of art.

The quilt project will be on view alongside Martha’s artwork. For anyone who would like to submit an enameled copper square to the quilt, you can learn more and express your interest here.

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Visit marthabanyas.com to see more of Martha’s enamel artworks.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Carol Raphael is a book editor and a writer on the arts and architecture. She has taught twentieth-century art history at Portland State University, Linfield College, and other schools in the Portland area. She frequently works with individuals writing memoirs and coaches writers preparing manuscripts or articles for publication.
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  1. Wonderful story about the many talents and triumphs of the amazing Martha Banyas. She is so missed but appreciated and loved.

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