The existential explorations of artist Laura Berger take place within beautifully minimalistic environments, populated by a cast of culturally diverse naked human bodies. Freed from all the trappings and distractions of contemporary life, the denizens of Berger’s dreamlike world, often engaging in spiritually enriching activities, both together and alone, highlight the importance of our basic human connections and the time required to reflect and grow. Berger reminds us that nestled within our searches for some meaning and answers to life’s bigger questions, lie vital notions of belonging and interconnectedness, which provide important foundations upon which we build upon, and which encourage and aid in the refinement of our personal identities and also the paths we follow.
Laura Berger is a visual artist living and working in Chicago, Illinois. She received her BFA from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse in 2002. Berger has shown her artwork both nationally and internationally, with exhibitions in Australia, Belgium, Canada, Chile, and New Zealand. As well as being an accomplished painter, she is also admired for her animations and more recently for her fantastic clay sculptures.
WOW x WOW took great pleasure in talking to Laura as she had just put the finishing touches to her most recent series of paintings, currently on show at Athen B. Gallery, alongside the works of fellow artist, Sarah Bowser, in their exhibition, ‘Nobody, Everybody’.
Hi Laura! First of all, thanks for agreeing to free up some of your valuable time in order to have this wee chat, we really appreciate it. If you could please start us off by introducing yourself and talking about your background, touching on anything you feel has been relevant to shaping Laura Berger the artist?
Thanks for inviting me! I’m an artist based in Chicago. I grew up in a pretty small town in Wisconsin and studied theatre in college; my major was in performance and my minor was in design, so I painted large backdrops for sets and costume renderings. After graduation, I worked for some theatre companies, and that was my first professional foray into painting. Doing my own work full-time came several years later. I was trying to get myself through a really hard time in my life and I started painting every night for hours, just to have something to be focused on. I never knew it would become my career. Losing my family base unexpectedly definitely had an enormous impact on the work I’m making, and watching someone I loved die quite young taught me a hard and important lesson about really seizing life while we’re here. I started throwing myself into creative work and also made an effort to start traveling a lot after that.
We’re interested to hear about where you’re currently living and what you like about the area? What is the art scene like there and do you feel a part of that community? Are these aspects of your existence that are important to your creativity?
I live in Chicago, in a quiet neighborhood on the north side of the city pretty near to the lake. Chicago is wonderfully diverse and that serves as a constant source of inspiration and a sense of well-being, for me. People here have always been very supportive of my work but I don’t feel like I belong to an art community here, I wish I could say that I did. However, my friends pretty much all work in creative fields and I do feel connected to a larger sense of community via the online world.
In what ways did your childhood and upbringing affect your relationship with the arts?
My parents were always both very supportive of my interest in the arts and really encouraged our creativity. I was always involved with activities in the arts – mostly singing, dancing, playing instruments, and theatre, but I painting and drawing was one of my main hobbies since I can remember. On the flip side, there were difficulties in my family that probably impacted my desire to make art just as much as the encouragement did – painting has always been a way for me to work through things and envision the world in the way I want it to be. In that way, it serves as a means of both escape and manifestation.
Your paintings make reference to the importance of what connects us as human beings. We are depicted in our truest essence, both in solitary and social contexts; you incorporate nothing to determine time-frames or status, only how we relate to ourselves and interact with each other on a personal, face-to-face basis. It appears as though you long to live in more simple and certainly less technologically driven world. Would you say this is an accurate assessment? If so, we’d love for you to elaborate on the concept for us, and if not we’d appreciate you setting us straight.
Ha! Yes, for sure. That is absolutely true. I think technology is great and all, and it’s obviously been very helpful for me to be able to make a living as an artist so I feel very aware of that. But I also think we’re getting more and more disconnected from ourselves, each other, and the things that truly matter. There’s also a feeling of never being able to be satiated or ‘done’ – there is so much information constantly coming at us and I think it can end up being very overwhelming and draining. The moments where there is nothingness are the moments where creative thought can happen, so constantly filling those empty spaces by looking at our phones, etc., can be really detrimental to the artistic process, or even to the process of sorting out one’s identity and opinions.
Via the nature of your subject matter and its focus on our human qualities, one might interpret that you are on a quest of curiosity about yourself and the rest of our species. Do you feel you are using art as a method of searching for answers to life’s questions and have you been rewarded or enlightened in any noticeable way that you’d care to share with us?
I am definitely always looking for answers and I’ve always had an existential bent, for sure. Making art is a way for me to continue to explore those larger questions and to play around with steering the answers in certain directions. We’ll likely never know the actual answers while we’re still alive if any concrete answers do exist, so painting can help to work through those thoughts and ideas.
What role does history play in your art making? You can take that to mean both personal and learned.
My personal history plays a large part in both the content of my work and the reason I make work. It started as a healing modality for me and it continues to be tied to that, even though it also presents its own challenges to me now that I’m doing it for my job. All of the images and music and theatre and colors and everything we’ve ever been exposed to seeps into our subconscious minds and combines with our unique histories and personalities and then is filtered through that to form our own individual expression, so I sense a real interconnectedness there. I feel like the creative work that people make all over the world is a sort of unending fabric that we’re all weaving into throughout time. Regardless of how much notice the work may get, we reflect and document our global history together through adding our voices.
Many of the figures in your work are presented engaging in what appear to be ritualistic activities and there are often overarching flavours of zen, tranquillity and spirituality. Do you personally participate in any ritualistic or spiritually awakening practices? What do you find helps your creative ideas rise to the surface?
I’ve always been into yoga and have had an ongoing practice for the last 20 years as well as a daily meditation practice. I view spirituality as a very personal thing that can be a combination of so many practices and philosophies – they all overlap and connect anyway. To me it’s really just a matter of seeking what things resonate with and feed one’s own spirit. Creative work is definitely also a big piece of spirituality for me. I think the most helpful thing for sparking ideas is maybe something that’s impossible to force – it’s when I’m able to let go totally mentally. I get a lot of ideas any time I’m able to just have some space to be awake and relaxed without doing too much actively with my brain: before falling asleep, when driving long distances, when I’m meditating, etc. Traveling also always sparks a lot of new thoughts because you’re so totally out of your normal routine and comfort zone.
Where does your focus lie when you’re painting?
Mostly I’m trying not to screw up. Haha! My mind goes all over the place though. It can be pretty intense and weird spending that much time alone with your own thoughts. Listening to really pleasant things, whether music or spoken word, can be essential for me to distract that thinking part of my brain which in turn helps me to paint better and make more instinctual decisions.
What are your thoughts about the dialogue and conversation cycle which is created between the artist and viewer? Also, what do you hope for viewers to take away from their time spent interacting with your work?
I guess that dialogue is quite interesting because it definitely occurs but it happens in a way where we don’t really get to hear what the other party is saying – it just sort of exists out there energetically in space. That seems really nice to me because when framed that way, nothing specific is expected of either person, which is quite unusual in light of the way we communicate with each other today. Every viewer will connect with a piece of art in a different way because of their own personal experiences and internal setup that they’re viewing it through. Something I find deeply moving might do nothing for someone else. I don’t have any concrete hopes; I think that could be limiting. I just hope it connects with people on some level.
In order to get a better understanding of the personality of an artist, it can help to get a peek behind the curtain. Would you be willing to share a story from your own life, possibly one whose memory you find yourself returning to for inspiration, or maybe just a tale about a hardship you’ve overcome which has helped define the person and therefore artist that you are now?
I had a crazy rough period when I was in my mid-late 20s that ended up being a big turning point in my life and eventually was the thing that led me into being an artist. In the span of a year, I had 3 deaths in my family and my long-term relationship ended in a really traumatic sort of way. I was trying to pick myself up off the floor from that when my father got diagnosed with cancer and died 6 months later. After that I basically freaked out, put all of my stuff in storage and quit my job and ran away to Costa Rica to live for a while and look at sloths and be by the ocean. Aaaaand then I got mugged at gunpoint there. So I came back to Chicago and had to start all over. I was obviously in a very dark place and I had to really consciously choose which direction I wanted my life to go in and I had to work really hard to overcome my feelings of despair. That’s when I started painting, and also when I started traveling a lot. I was suddenly very connected to the fragility of life and I wanted to try to spend my time doing things that felt good to me.
If you could own one piece of art from any of the world’s collections what would it be and why?
I would probably have a different answer for this in any given moment, but the first thing that popped into my head is ‘Blue Atmosphere’ by Helen Frankenthaler. I think it’s equally soothing and exciting to look at and it makes me feel in touch with something larger.
What’s next for Laura Berger?
I just finished a new series of paintings and sculptures for a two-person show at Athen B. Gallery in Oakland. It’s called ‘Nobody, Everybody’, and it will be up through April 7. I have several group shows scheduled and some cool other projects. I hope to be painting and working on some new sculptural ideas for the rest of the year, and getting some travel and relaxation in as well.