Norman Berman has been creating art work professionally for over 50 years. He tells us, “For me, creating artwork is a challenge. As I look at a work surface, I begin my conversation with it. The surface says to me ,’Create something, I dare you!’ Therefore, my adventure begins!”
As one listens to Norman Berman share some of his life-stories, you must pay attention to details. Looking at his artwork, that should be no surprise. It is these tidbits that makes the whole.
“The Interdicted Land”
TRR: What were your early artistic influences?
I came from a minimally educated family. My mother drew a great teacup and saucer, because she learned how to draw an oval and a round shape in school. The only artwork on our walls at home was my Bar Mitzvah picture. My first introduction to art was at age four, when I accompanied my father, a shipping clerk in a mens’ wear company, to work. The women in the office gave me a piece of paper, a red pencil, a black pencil and plopped me in a chair with the instructions to ‘draw something’. I drew the American flag to keep myself occupied. Over the years, I started to copy and draw comic book characters (Disney, Terry and the Pirates, Dick Tracy). My father would take these drawings and hang them in his workplace and change them around – it was my first public gallery!
As the United States entered WWII, I was fascinated by US military aircraft, so I wrote to all of the aircraft companies for pictures. They would send me these gorgeous lithographic prints! My favorite was the P38, a double fuselage plane and very impressive to look at. Around the same time, there was a kid in our neighborhood who was already in high school and must have been an art major. I would show him my airplane drawings and he showed me how to create perspective images: not linear perspective images going to a vanishing point, but looking down at buildings as if you were in an airplane.
When I was 10 years old, I broke my elbow. It was probably the beginning of my escapades with brittle bone disease, but we didn’t know about that until much much later. While at Beth El Hospital ( now Maimonides), I used to draw the nurses in profile, with their little hats. In elementary school, my art was always hanging in the halls.
As a Junior High School student, one of my teachers recommended that I attend the High School of Music & Art. We happened to live close to the neighborhood high school, Abraham Lincoln High School. To go to Music and Art, would mean a long commute via subway, which my parents weren’t happy about. As a result, I ended up in a local high school that by chance, had a fabulous art department! That’s where I got my real strength in training, in my approach to art. In 10th grade, Herbert W. Yates taught me graphic design, different mediums as well as the importance of art history.
I started saving articles from “Life Magazine” that related to art and artists. My father would pick up a copy at the newsstand every Saturday. I finally convinced him that it would be more convenient and less expensive to get a subscription! After reading the entire magazine, I categorized the pictures into my own filing system in red envelopes. My mother, who was also a voracious reader, would buy other magazines like ‘McCalls’ and ‘Ladies Home Journal’. Those magazines happen to have some of the top-notched illustrators of our time.
“Chai Designs: Tallis 17, Heavenly Reverence”
TRR: Norman shares his “beshert” (Yiddish for “meant to be”) moment. He takes us back to 1950.
Leon Friend was the Chairman of the Art Department and I was sitting in his Graphic Arts class – last row, second seat. Leon says,’ DO YOU KNOW WHO SAT IN YOUR SEAT? ‘ I said, ‘No.’ Friend said, ‘Alex Steinweiss’. This was like mentioning God! Alex Steinweiss was in one of the early graduating classes at Lincoln. After graduating from Parsons School of Design, he worked for Columbia Records. Steinweiss convinced his employers to change their marketing strategy to sell their long playing records. Instead of wrapping the records in brown paper, they should create a book with the record inside. Each book would have artwork on its cover. Alex Steinweiss was responsible for the entire industry of record albums cover designs!
During my senior year, I prepared a portfolio and sent it out to various groups, including the School Art League. It is now May, 1952. Mr. Friend comes into class and asks who we think should be the happiest person in the room today. And then he says, ‘Norman, it’s you! You just won the scholarship to Parsons School of Design! ‘ I’m thinking that I’m following in the steps of Alex Steinweiss!
In those days, we didn’t have cell phones. You couldn’t even go down to the office to call your mother! When I finally got home and shared my good news, my mother thought it was very nice. Then we waited until my father came home to tell him. I had already been accepted to tuition-free Brooklyn College. What to do… My father, a practical man, didn’t want Norman to accept the scholarship. (What if it wasn’t renewed after a year – they couldn’t afford tuition; what about the cost of supplies; they also wanted to send his brother to college in just more three years).
Norman had to go back to school and tell Mr. Friend the news. This dedicated teacher stayed until 7 pm the next evening to meet with Norman’s father in an attempt to convince him, even offering an extra $100. from the “Art Squad” to help defray costs. The answer was the same. A product of the Depression, Norman’s father understood the need to be pragmatic. Norman would go to college, become a teacher and get a job.
That summer I didn’t have a job. I walked from Brighton Beach, where we lived and roamed the streets of Manhattan Beach. It was an upper class community with street names in alphabetical order. I would look at all of the nice houses, telling myself that I was going to Brooklyn College. I psyched myself up about meeting new people and having new experiences.
TRR: Norman graduated from Brooklyn College and went back to his alma mater, Abraham Lincoln High School to student teach.
In May, 1956, I am being supervised by my teacher from Brooklyn College. I’m teaching an art class that I’ve been working with since February. Everything is going well – the timing is perfect, the results are terrific. The bell rings and everyone leaves, but this one 15 year old perky blond student walks up the aisle to speak with me. I’m expecting this great question about the art lesson and she says to me,’ Mr. Berman, do you use Old Spice aftershave lotion?’ Yes, I do! (Her name was Susan Slater).
Susan Slater ended up dating my brother. She had an aunt who lived in East New York in a two-family building that was owned by Ethel’s sister. She thought it would be nice to fix up Norman with Ethel… In September , 1960, she set up Norman on a blind date with Ethel. The rest is history! As Norman points out, if he had gone to Parsons, he would not have ended up student teaching and being introduced to his “beshert”, Ethel. Our first date was on Ethel’s birthday. We were married for 52 years.
After graduation with my BA and Ma from Brooklyn College, I taught Junior High and moved on to High School. I concentrated on teaching painting as part of the curriculum, along with art history and color theory. From my own experiences, I encouraged my students to learn and research their subjects. Research is an essential part of any good piece of artwork! My favorite part of the curriculum was teaching painting. I was privileged to have a number of students from the “Art Talent Classes”. These were students who took art classes five days a week and showed promise. I continued teaching and eventually became a supervisor (Assistant Principal) . I taught in a few different schools and in 1983 was awarded the ‘Art Educator Award’ from the New York City Art Teacher’s Association/UFT in recognition of my outstanding service and commitment to art education. I also held the rank of Adjunct Assistant Professor of Art at Queensborough College where I taught painting, drawing, two-dimensional design, advertising design and art history. I finally retired in January, 1991.
“Our Father, Our King: Aveenu Malkainu”
TRR: Tell us more about your own artwork. On your website, you differentiate between two different types of art. One is the “Prayer Shawl Series” and then “the rest”.
Somewhere, there is a interrelationship. Some of my larger paintings incorporate Hebrew words from Jewish prayers. The ‘Lecha Dodi’ piece that is on the Armory Art Center invitation, is from the prayer service which welcomes the Sabbath. It refers to the oncoming Sabbath as a bride. In my living room, is a powerful piece of bright yellow hues titled ‘Aveenu Malkeinu’ (Our Father, Our King”, which comes from the High Holy Day liturgy. I created the ‘Prayer Shawl (‘Tallis’) Series’, one for each year’s Jewish New Year’s card for my family.
During my studies at Brooklyn College, three or four faculty members really influenced me: Jimmy Ernst (son of Max), Carl Robert Holty ( a disciple of Mondrian), and Harry Holtzman. Stylistically, Jimmy showed me how calligraphy and linear work can influence a piece of artwork; how to allow just enough, without overpowering the piece. Holty taught me to take Mondrian’s rectangles and squares and change their edges from white to various tints and shades of color, allowing work to “float” in one plane over the other. He helped me capture my creative imagination through color relationships. Holty subscribed to Hans Hoffman’s theory of “Push and Pull”. Holtzman, who never taught studio, explained the theory of modern art, abstract theory and how to analyze what the creative process was all about. He was one of the people who managed to help Mondrian get into this country. The faculty of Brooklyn College in the 50’s and 60’s were influential artists, bringing new ideas and changes to the art world. They were the top names in the Abstract Expressionist Movement. Having Mark Rothko as a teacher, certainly influenced me. I subscribe to the Abstract Art Movement’s credo “The act of painting is more important than the product. As Mark Rothko says, “My paintings are made to engulf you.”
“Lake of The Snow Moon”
At the same time as I was teaching, I was also creating and showing my own work. I believe strongly that to be able to teach art, you must be involved in the creative process yourself! You have to live through the agony of that blank canvas and the ecstasy of a finished piece of art.
TRR: Does your art tell a story?
Good question! Usually, my art does not tell a story. It suggests to the observer a set of images. My piece, ‘Lake of Snow Moon’ is unusual in that aspect, for me. I normally don’t create narrative pieces of work like that. When we lived in Queens, it was very different for people like my neighbor, Murray Tinkleman, who had to produce a spot drawing for ‘Field & Stream’ of a sailfish. As an illustrator, he had to complete a considerable amount of research. What does a kid from Brooklyn know about a sailfish? Murray became Chairman of the Illustration Department at Parsons School of Design and then went on to Syracuse University. The toughest part of being an abstract painter is when people ask me , ‘well, what is that supposed to be?’ If my response is that I cannot tell them and they have to determine for themselves, it sounds dismissive. I don’t want to be that way. If the spectator is not willing to engage and think and wonder ‘what does that look like?’, I cannot establish that for them.
I like the subtlety of color relationships and that shows in a majority of my work. Even after graduation from Brooklyn College, I would go to Carl Holty’s studio and show him my work and talk about these theories. Then I started to show my work in galleries in Greenwich Village, eventually moving to galleries uptown.
TRR: What is your favorite part of being an artist?
When the piece is ready to sign! I have exhibited widely in the New York metropolitan area and my work appears in numerous private collections across the country. The Queensborough Community College Gallery has my work in its permanent collection. My work has been displayed in libraries around Nassau and Suffolk Counties in New York as well as the Polish Consulate in Manhattan, the GE Gallery in Schenectady, NY and the SONY Gallery in New York City.
“Slowly Comes The Night”
TRR: What tips would you give beginning artists?
Don’t be afraid to do what you want to do! Your images will grow and your style will change. That is OK. For me, selling my work is a secondary thought. I love what I do. But, at the same time, don’t be afraid to market yourself. I know this is difficult because one is fearful thinking about it. Most artists aren’t trained to sell their work.
TRR: Can you take us through the process of a painting?
When we relocated to Florida, I moved away from working with oils. Fundamentally, I now use watercolor. I start out with a blank sheet of paper. I add floating colors next. After that, I bring in wide calligraphic lines, getting thinner and thinner to create an intricate ‘lace-like’ network. The final effort is to come up with a title. When I reread two of my favorite books, “My Name is Asher Lev” and “The Gift of Asher Lev” by Chaim Potok, while I was not as prolific as Asher Lev, I had many of the same experiences as he did, growing up in Brooklyn.
I rarely work from sketches or small studies. I put up a piece of illustration board, watercolor paper or canvas ( when I worked in oils). I don’t buy this notion that art is for self-enjoyment. Art is a challenge to let your mind and brain create images through your hand that I find pleasing, interesting and challenging. The one thing about the 1950’s and 1960’s about theories in art in colleges was that the act of painting was more important than the product. If you finish the product and you like it, sign and you’re done. Fine. If you finish a product that you don’t like, it is also fine to rip it up and throw it away. In fact, in Mark Rothko’s class, he would have you create a piece of art, then tear it up and reconstruct it!
“Scylla and Charybdis”
I have never created collage with my artwork. When I am finished with a painting, I sign it and that’s it! That’s not a “beshert” moment. It is an “Aha” moment. When you look at your piece and know that it is enough, you are done. If you’re not sure, stop painting and turn the piece facing the wall. Turn it around and look at it in another 6 weeks. Look at it with fresh eyes. My best best and most instant critic was Ethel…
TRR: Norman is a visionary. With all the hullaballoo about recycling and using “found objects” to make art in our current times, Norman and colleague Andrew Pinto co-wrote “Art from Clutter” in 1976. Why then?
We did all of the work ourselves. We wrote it, made the objects and even took the photographs! Robert Rauschenberg was beginning to explore these things, in the early Pop Art Movement. He used non-traditional materials and objects in innovative combinations. I see it as an extension of the Abstract Expressionism Movement, expanding into another direction. The book was to be the first in a series of using “found objects” to make collage, frottage ( rubbings) and assemblage. We went to great lengths to get permission to use historic images and information as part of the book’s literature. (Museum of Primitive Art, Museum of Contemporary Art, MOMA). It was exciting when we took our kids to Washington, DC to the Library of Congress and found it in the card catalogue! The owner of the publishing company unfortunately passed away and the company dissolved, so no further books were written in the series.
TRR: How do you recharge your creativity?
I love photography. If I am not doing that, I try to spend time at my easel every day. I tend to like working on only one piece at a time. I like the continuity from day to day, as my layers build up.
TRR: Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
I do have a physical limitation, which prevents me from working on large canvases, which I used to do in oils and in acrylics. I was diagnosed with ‘brittle bone disease’ (osteogenesis imperfecta). Because of my disability, I limit myself to working on full sheet or a double elephant size Arches’ Bright White 300 lb. Cold Press paper or 140 lb. Arches Bright White paper. In reading a research paper about OI, it stated that those with the disease tend to be very optimistic people, with strong motivations. We get up. We do. We are positive. I hope more people find out about the OI Foundation.wwwOIF.org My granddaughter, Mira, uses art as an outlet because she cannot run around like other kids, due to this brittle bone issue.
Norman at his easel
In 2012, Norman served as Coordinator for the Artists of Palm Beach County’s exhibit at the Armory Art Center. He had no idea how complex this administrative job would become. He comments, “Being an educator gives you a multiplicity of skills”. Two Armory Art Center Faculty members judged the show. I met Talya Lerman and established a relationship with the Armory Art Center.
Norman has dedicated this exhibit to his late wife and life-partner, Ethel. He will show 20-25 pieces at the Armory Art Center. “Awe and Reverence” will show some of his abstract paintings as well a images of the journey through his Jewish heritage. The “Awe” bridges the gap between some of the abstractions and the reverential images of Berman’s heritage.
For more information about this exhibit, please visit www.armoryart.org or contact Norman Berman : www.normanberman.com