This past Friday evening was an exciting one for Woman Made Gallery, where three shows were opening: “After Adelita” and its accompanying exhibition catalog, made possible with a grant from 3Arts, took center stage in the upper level gallery. In celebration of “The Year of Mexico in Chicago” and the centennial of the Mexican Revolution, After Adelita showcases work from eight Chicago-based women artists expressing “…ideas about myths, heroes, and revolutionaries…in diverse media, such as video, painting, photography, and printmaking”. The curator Amy Galpin goes on to write: “The Revolution resulted in the loss of more than one million lives and brought destruction to communities across Mexico. After Adelita examines how a century later, artists in Chicago create work that can relate both closely and loosely to the most iconic female figure to emerge from this turbulent time in Mexican history.” The mood was festive as the gallery filled up with artists, their family members, and friends, as well as a number of other visitors. Seeing the gallery so full of people engaging with the work and each other truly enhanced the quality of dialogue that already exists between the works in this exciting and well-curated show.
In the lower level galleries the celebration continued with the unveiling of brand new paintings by artist Laura Kina in her solo show “Sugar“. Drawing on oral history and family photographs, Kina’s haunting textile-influenced paintings “…recall obake ghost stories and feature Japanese and Okinawan picture brides turned machete carrying sugar cane plantation field laborers on the Big Island of Hawaii”. The gallery was full and lively with inquisitive visitors including Kina’s family as well as her students from DePaul University, where she is a professor of Art, Media, and Design.
In contrast to Kina’s newer work, the second lower-level gallery features a career-spanning show of sculptures by artist Constance DeMuth Berg, called “Seeing in a New Way”. Berg works in recycled and found objects to create sculptures ranging from just over one foot tall to almost six feet in height. Her pieces are incredible to me in that they achieve such a variety of effects depending on the angle from which you look at them, while always maintaining a quality of balance and elegance. The act of simply circling one of her pieces takes me through a range of experiences and references; sculptures go from inviting to imposing, from pagan to religious, and from human-like to machine-like.
As the space became packed with enthusiastic visitors, some of them old friends and some new fans, I was lucky enough to sit down with Berg and spend some time talking about her life and work. I was curious about how she came to sculpting and how long she has been at it. She told me that she did not begin until 1987, when she retired from teaching art. Before that, she had been mainly focused on watercolors. When I asked her whether she thought about making sculptures before this, she told me that in fact she had already started collecting materials that were interesting to her but did not have the time and space to use them until after her teaching career. For example, the wooden mold pieces in Dark Vigil, spent some time in storage before becoming part of the sculpture they are now. And as an undergraduate studying music, specifically the piano, Berg had in fact been drawn to sculpture and decided to take a class at Cranbrook Academy of Art when she graduated. On the first day the professor asked the students to make an armature. “I didn’t know what that was, and became intimidated, leaving the class”, said Berg. She instead focused on painting and drawing at Cranbrook, though she took from that experience an important lesson for her own teaching practice, “Never assume that a student knows something, or you risk intimidation”.
What a pleasure it was to be with Connie Berg, as she is called, and listen to her speak. She pointed to the sharp angles and curves in the wooden mold that is part of her piece Indomitable Survival, explaining how for her they represent the hard turns in life that can lead to a balanced and joyful outcome, as depicted in the symmetrical metal top piece of the sculpture. I can see that her show’s title “Seeing in a New Way”, is really the core sentiment of her practice. She confirms this, writing of her found objects, “I take them as I find them, and am challenged and disciplined to work within the limitations of their design to assemble a sculpture in which each shape seems to belong to another by coming together (somewhat magically?) into a final harmonious composition.”
I find it intriguing that Berg did not come to her sculpture practice until later in life. It is almost as though it was incubating, waiting for the moment when she was ready to engage it with full force, as it is quite evident she was finally able to do. This rumination led me to a question about the objects she uses, as it would seem fitting that in addition to the “found” pieces Berg writes about, she would also incorporate more personal objects from her home and past. When I asked her about this she confirmed that indeed she has used objects close to her heart, and pointed to the base of Center Self, which is constructed from her mother’s sewing basket, turned upside down (not featured in linked photo). Similarly, her father’s watch is featured prominently in Dark Vigil, which she explained is a meditation on death and time. She said, “It just seemed to fit there”.
Berg’s work is truly awe-inspiring and thought-provoking, particularly in its fluidity and the ease with which she conjures up such visual satisfaction and emotion in each piece. I feel such gratitude to have had a chance to learn more about it from the source. Nina Corwin, Woman Made’s Poetry Curator and a friend of Berg’s sums up the experience perfectly: “I’ve never seen anything like this, but now I can’t imagine the world without it.”
-Ruby Thorkelson, Gallery Assistant