My art is an expression and account of the ongoing balancing act inherent in finding and securing oneself while maintaining connection to and responsibility for concerns of the larger world.
These images from three series represent an ongoing attempt to strike a balance and unify what often feels like opposing forces. My work varies in medium, style, and context; however, color, form, and texture are a constant, as are threaded stories and personal/collective narratives. There are abstract explosions of color, figures and silhouettes, emotive landscapes in Greenland, Maine, and my other “places,” clarity and confusion, collision of past and present, and the cycle of life and death—all of which feel fragile and tough at the same time.
Maine-Greenland Collaborations is a project that combines art with the social and natural sciences to explore cultural, environmental and socio-economic changes facing coastal communities in Maine and Greenland. Research and creative activities include interviews with coastal residents, arts-based community workshops and treks across diverse land and seascapes. The art and community practice component of the project, which launched on Long Island, Maine, in 2020 and continued in the Kujataa region of South Greenland in 2022, is the subject of my artwork thus far. Additionally, I was given a trove of family photos by a friend whose father spent a year at the Thule Air Base in Northern Greenland in 1959 with permission to use it in the series.
As an artist/scholar/community practitioner member of this team, I am informed by the qualitative interviews, community engagement and relationship building over time, and what I am learning about the geopolitical, economic, social, cultural, and environmental factors that impact Maine, Greenland, and the world. Both regions share a past US military presence, struggled and continue to struggle with autonomy (Long Island seceded from Portland in 1993, and Greenland is under Danish rule), have a reverence for nature, value and rely on mutual aid, and are vulnerable to changes in climate. In the case of Greenland the melting ice sheet is an indicator for the rest of the globe. And while Maine and Greenland are North Atlantic neighbors with common ground, we are also unique. I am drawn to both.
In the Meantime
The In the Meantime series was conceived in concept before I went to Greenland last June as a member of the Maine-Greenland Collaboration research team. And as is often the case, the phrase came to me while walking on Mackworth Island . . . In the meantime everything changed . . . and so much was changing as a result of the significant loss of loved ones accompanied by incredible personal and artistic growth. My beloved fifteen-year old golden retriever Pearl passed while I was in Greenland, adding to a tally of unrelenting death and grief that prevailed in 2022. It became clear it was part of Pearl’s plan to spare me, and I had to reckon with that. Pearl and my other dogs who passed since 2016 are embedded in this series, along with the significance of certain everyday objects and the tools of my trade.
Generational Layers: Gerstenblatt-Berg Collage Portraits
As I arranged these collected pieces on the table in my studio, the past came into view with ghosts swirling, surfaces cracking, events unfolding in a simultaneous reach backwards and forwards. Days and nights on end in my studio I encountered my past selves, my grandparents making their way to America and building lives as Jewish immigrants, my parents emerging from the Great Depression and World War II to become a couple with hopes and dreams, which were dashed by the loss of a child, so painful we suffered in near silence as she was all but erased from our lives.
Storytelling is at the core of my work. I have used collage as a method of narration for decades. My role in storytelling extends beyond the realm of artist to scholar, teacher, and community practitioner. For me, the personal is political. Individual narratives anchor collective ones, and in this deeply personal series, woven throughout the paintings are broad themes of grief, complexity of the parent/child relationship, identity, grappling with society and one’s racism/anti-antisemitism, surviving trauma, and finding ways to thrive. There is the challenge of seeing your parents as people who have lives beyond their role as mother and father. Creating this series helped me find compassion for my parents and also for myself as a parent who failed her children in ways that still cause regret and sorrow. Yet, I also recovered joy, gratitude, and legacies to be proud of. And boundless love.
Image at top: Paula Gerstenblatt, Zaidie Berg, mixed media, 33 x 37 in.