The Human-Scapes of Pat Berger
They are everywhere and yet they are invisible. They come to sunny California, not because it is the land of opportunity, but because it is possible to survive here without shelter, exposed to the elements. They line our streets, covering themselves with our discarded newspapers furnishing their lives with our castaways. They are a genuine community, a subculture from which we avert our eyes. We walk past quickly because we can do nothing not even acknowledge their existence. They are the homeless, an army encamped within our gates.
The word “less” is closely associated with these people — men, women, children and entire families. It is pointless to try to help them, for they need so much; it is useless to try, for the government has abandoned them; it is hopeless to try to improve the situation, for they keep on coming falling helplessly out of the ranks of “respectable” society and drifting into feelings of worthlessness. The homeless were once ordinary people with the dreams and aspirations and ambitions of anyone born in the U.S.A But somewhere something went wrong and the American dream faded away taking with it jobs, security and the future. These now powerless ones mark time and wait, wait for “conditions” to improve wait for help, wait for rescue. They have less. They are less. They are the forgotten ones.
Pat Berger is one artist who did not and could not forget. She could not avert her eyes and walk on by. To her the homeless were important individuals whose life and times needed to be recorded as part of the human condition at the end of the millennium. It is testimony to the callousness and the neglect for which we must all assume some responsibility that her work with the homeless now dates back a decade. Berger’s interest in people marks her entire artistic career. Her paintings of the 1970s capture the “Me” Decade, a period of self-absorption and contentment. In this magical California world of plenty people laze at the beach, join exercise classes and live the endless vacation culture. The Venice of its early pre-Roller years of the now-famous skating culture before the recent riots is nostalgically charming and entertaining. But even then Berger found warning signs that all was not well and, being a “people person,” she did not miss the sight of the displaced in a town where people fished off the pier, not for sport, but in order to feed themselves.
For more than five years in the mid-1980s Berger struggled to raise the consciousness of the government and the people of Los Angeles about society’s discards. She moved and worked among the homeless, getting to know them as individuals. Far from being a detached observer calmly using the local color as fodder for artistic subject matter, Berger understood the need for human contact, for simple social conversation among these people who had become isolated from “normal” society. As the ‘80s progressed and Reagan released marginal individuals from the safe but expensive haven of asylums, the ranks of the homeless swelled. Street people could not be considered only as derelicts and bums, drunks and addicts who “deserved” their fate but were veterans who had difficulty to readjusting to people, teenagers fleeing abusive homes, the discarded elderly, and families whose paychecks had run out.
In 1984 the situation had become so desperate that the city of Los Angeles set up Tent City, originally intended to shelter 300 people. Pat Berger, in her growing concern for the desperate and the elderly, was drawn to this place of refuge. Working with Ted Hayes, the Martin Luther King of the homeless, Berger attempted to rally support for the growing number of people who had drifted into this tunnel without light. Out of these efforts came the documentary, Trouble in Paradise, a film by Gary Glazer which used her paintings. This work received an Emmy Award in 1986.
Instead of the traditional method of sketching on site, Berger, like most contemporary artists, uses the camera as a instrument of research. The images are then projected on the wall, enabling her to see the enlarged details which cannot be seen by the naked eye in a photography. Thus the realism of her work, i.e., dealing with the harsh realities of everyday life honestly, acquires a kind of hyper-realism which forces the viewer to see at a higher than normal level.
In contrast to her early works of the 1960s which often dealt with crowd scenes, Berger’s paintings of the homeless are notable for their concentration on either one or very few individuals, stressing he isolation and loneliness. Berger’s work of this period is also marked by the gray tonalities which register both the pain and the pride of the homeless. She used the elegant geometric structures of Diebenkorn (and, of course, Matisse), turning the rhythms of the good life of Ocean park into the cadences of the sad life in the city of Angels. As in Degas, the painted spaces become empty arenas of loneliness as life stretches endlessly on and yet abruptly dead-ends.
Berger’s biographer stated that her period of working with the homeless extended over four years, but the artist herself remembers the period as being somewhat longer. At some point, she herself reached burnout. Statements about the poverty and despair that characterized everyday life of the invisible class became redundant and the situations of the homeless became worse. Caring simply was not enough.
For Pat Berger, caring is what life is about. Although Berger’s name and reputation are still associated with her work with homeless, she has followed that experience with artistic projects that act as antidotes to despair. For this decade, she has concentrated upon flowers and upon landscapes. The Bromeliad series was actually begun during her homeless period and later served as a jumping off point in both watercolor and acrylic. Berger traveled to gardens all over Southern California to gather her material. Many of the flower paintings are close-ups, another example supra-normal vision, asking the viewer to contemplate the dual nature of flowers which can be both good and evil. The cactus seeks to protect itself with painful spines and yet secretes precious liquid and blooms in dramatic beauty. Given a chance, the waterlily will multiply and take over any pond, preserving itself and its species, obscuring the water but providing pleasure for the garden-goer.
A beautiful and stately woman, Berger began her career during a period that was less than hospitable to women artists, but she has forged an impressive career. Over the decades, she has won numerous awards, particularly in the field of watercolor and has been extensively written about and exhibited. She attended what is today the Art Center College of Design for two years but withdrew from formal education to devote herself to her husband and children. She never obtained the higher degrees so necessary for the professional artist in today’s art world. Beginning as an assistant to Millard Sheets, Berger worked with the notable California artist on a series of murals for the walls of Home Savings and Loan banks in California. As her career progressed, she preferred to devote her teaching career to adult education through the Los Angeles Unified School District. In many ways Berger’s life and career exemplify a woman of her period. Talented, ambitious and determined she managed to combine the responsibilities to her family with responsibilities to herself and to her art. She never stopped painting and she never stopped giving herself to others.
Berger is a woman who cares, and she is also an artist who carries within her the history of post-War California art, from the old master sheets to the new upstarts of the Bay area, Diebenkorn and Altoon. Although she has never had formal art history training, Berger is familiar with other painters of daily life, from Fragonard to Manet, and comes full circle a century later with works which show a profound understanding of Joseph Raffael and Joyce Treiman and a growing appreciation for the landscapes of April Gornik.
It is possible to view Berger’s career as a geiger counter of concerns of the post-War period, for like many women coming of age in the ‘70s and ‘80s, she began to consider her place in society as a woman. As she felt more and more strongly the need to identify with other women, Berger began a series of works on women in the Old and New Testaments, identifying these women with flowers mentioned in the bible.Although painted during a period of being “between people and plants,” as she puts it, these works surely relate to her years of participation in the now-defunct Women’s Building and its programs for women in the arts.
Women rarely play major roles in the Bible. Often when they appear, they are either supporting characters, such as Hagar or are sources of evil and the downfall of innocent men, such as Deliah. Only occasionally did women figure in the patriarchal society of Biblical times. Even more rare was the woman who acted on her own – a Judith or a Deborah or a Ruth. Selecting fragments easily glossed over in Biblical history Berger focused upon the virtuous women of the Bible, stressing the fact that women were present and did participate to the religious heritage of the Western world. Bible stories are both specific and timeless, for the courage and sacrifices of the women whose deeds were recorded can still serve as inspiration for women in today’s world. The idea of depicting flowers from the Bible came from a visit to a Biblical garden at a church in Ojai, and it seemed only natural for these flowers to also symbolize women who flowered in obscurity against difficult odds.
When beginning this series, Berger was concerned about her lack of standing as a Biblical scholar and consulted with experts; but, in the end, it is the artist who has the final word. She considers women and nature to be inextricably connected, because both are nurturing to the earth, and concentrates on the power and pride of women who have been both brave warriors and caring human beings. One of the more impressive paintings of this series as I Am Black But Comely (1991). A close friend of the artist served as the model for the Queen of Sheba standing really amidst her flowers. Berger allowed the racist translation of the phrase from the King James version of the Bible, with its demeaning conjunctive “but,” to remain and to be ironically contradicted by a painted truth. The viewer replaces the word “but” with the word “and,” thus putting history to rights, Berger, who would like to join the Peace Corps, does not see her art as shifting from subject to subject, but views her career as an exploration of the human spirit as played out in that mysterious game we call life.
Today Berger is dealing with another kind of history, concentrating on yet another forgotten segment of today’s society: the elderly. She has been teaching at the Claude Pepper Senior Center for over a decade, and, as part of her job as art teacher, she has been active in drawing out the memories of her students. Their recollections have historical significance. Even though their individual lives may seem unimportant, these retired persons were often witnesses and participants in epoch-making events. Their roles have been forgotten and unrecorded, but it is necessary to gather up this documentation while there is still time and to retrieve these personal memories which are part of our inheritance. One student is a former court reporter for the war crime trials at Dachau and Nuremberg, another is a Black man remembering African-American life before integration and still another recalls his career as a musician during the Jazz era. This summer, the seniors will present their own memories in the ”I Remember When” show at the Senior Center. Although this exhibition can never fully explain the past, it can illuminate the small pieces of the mosaic we call “history.” Berger takes these senior artists very seriously, respecting them as creators and makers and laboring to make sure that their lives will not pass unnoticed or unrecognized. To her they are members of her extended family whose art sums up and tells of their own existences. Everyone has a mark to make.
Currently Berger’s own painting career centers upon a new series of Latin American landscapes. On a recent vacation to Costa Rica, he spent hours observing the dramatic and constantly changing jungle lands, great green vistas of rolling mountains and drifting clouds. For Berger, this reconnection with nature was a spiritually healing experience. Her studio contains both her past and present, for these landscapes-in-the making line its walls, and here and there her small sculptures, dating back to her Venice Beach days, observe the artist at work. Beyond the studio stretches the garden lovingly tended by her husband, who nurtures the very flowers that his wife will paint.
For Berger, her life and her art are intertwined, but she has always moved beyond the confines of the atelier and has devoted her life to giving to the community and its people through her work as an artist and social activist. Far from being removed safely to the sanctity of the museum space, the art in this woman’s world is part of a larger world. “We are in a constant journey throughout life and art parallels that journey,” Berger states. “Each stage in life reflects a different need, and so the creative process is a never-ending, always-changing interpretation.”
By J.S. Willette