“One’s destination is never a place, but rather a new way of looking at things.” Henry Miller wrote.
Mary Bergs happened to be in India when she found a new way of looking at herself. Next thing she knew she was headed toward a new destination: a career as a professional artist.
The Minneapolis 59-year-old had never thought of herself as artistic, didn’t draw as a child, had avoided art classes in school. She earned degrees in psychology and sociology and made a career as a social worker. But while visiting India in the late 1980s with a group of textile artists (she’d been doing some weaving for fun), Bergs underwent a transformation.
“Something happened to me there,” Bergs said. It sounds mysterious, and she can’t pinpoint a catalyst or even a specific moment. “I returned with a sense that I needed to reduce the amount of time I was spending as a social worker and develop my skills and myself as an artist.”
She enrolled in University of Minnesota art classes in 1996, earning a bachelor of fine arts degree in 1999. Around age 50 she left her career in social work altogether.
Miller’s quote is apropos of not just Berg’s life trajectory but her artwork itself. Bergs wants to inspire her viewers to look at things — actual, ordinary, physical things — in a new way.
“What I’m figuring out is how do all these things that we encounter in the world — how do they fit together?” she said. “How much in our everyday lives are we exposed to things that are incredibly beautiful but that we overlook or even dismiss because it’s not ‘art’?”
Most of her pieces are arrangements of small to medium objects, seemingly random but actually carefully selected, perhaps once functional — tools, office supplies, kitchen gadgets — but no longer especially valued. She looks for discarded stuff in alleys. Sometimes she fiddles with it: fills a clear glass bowl with clear glass lightbulbs, weaves wiry black threads through a metal coffee-percolator filter, scores paper-towel designs across a page from an old book. Then she groups objects on walls or tables in a very precise way discerned through trial and error.
“I try to remove myself and let the things I’m working with decide where they want to be,” she said. “I’ll have the object and think, does this want to be here? Does this want to be down an inch? Does this want to be two inches over? Until something just sort of clicks and, OK, this is where it’s supposed to be.”
For example, a work currently displayed on her studio wall combines, among other things, an ordinary junk-mail-style envelope, a white square pierced with straight pins, a small cupboard door, a wire basket from a commercial deep fryer, a roll of black sandpaper from a belt sander, and the piece that initially inspired the entire work: a little rectangle of black paper with some numbers and slits scattered across it whose original purpose nobody has been able to identify.
“I put it on the studio wall and thought, I’m gong to have to build a piece of work around this object so I can get people to look at this object,” she said. “If I were a really famous artist I could just put this on a wall. I’m not there yet.”
The arrangements are meant to be a straightforward visual experience, not tricky or elusive. If you’re looking for complex hidden meanings, you’re probably overthinking it.
“I’m showing you these things that you’ve probably seen before in another context, but I’m representing them to you,” Bergs said. “I firmly believe that if I understand how things in the world fit together, I’ll have a better understanding of how I fit in the world.”
That idea ties in to her earlier career, she said; as a social worker, she tried to help people fit into their own environments.
Sprawling, minimalist and not “pretty” in a traditional way, most of Bergs’ work is not particularly commercial, and she estimates she has sold less than 10 percent of it. She doesn’t depend on art sales to make a living; she works as an art-and-design consultant for health-care organizations, does some teaching and mentoring, receives the occasional artist grant.
“Those are my version of waiting tables,” she said.
Bergs has exhibited in several states and throughout the Twin Cities, generally in colleges or alternative gallery spaces. In addition to her installations of found objects, she makes colorful abstract prints, more traditional-looking pieces that do sell. But sales aren’t the point of making art, she insists. Although she notes wryly that Americans sometimes have a hard time understanding this, you can be an artist even if nobody buys a thing.
“I consider myself to be a professional artist, but selling my work is a very, very small part of that conversation,” she said. “I’ll go out and work in my studio for six or eight hours a day. I am working whether success comes my way or not.”