Laura Berger headed to the coasts of Costa Rica for her first great escape, and the shores still tug mightily. She’s a Midwestern gal, born and bred, a firmly centered one at that, but like the symphony of skyscrapers for which her hometown of Chicago is known, her figures are unique but dance in harmony. A background in theatrical performance informs the understanding that ensemble enhances the beauty of a solo, while her devotion to yoga is evident in the rangy bodies that curl up in contemplation or reach out and strive like her city’s skyline. As she readied for her show with Hashimoto Gallery In NYC this November 2020, I spoke to the painter, and sometime sculptor and animator, about her melodious, multi-fluent and timeless inhabitants who speak softly but sound out.
Gwynned Vitello: You paint men and women, but when I look at your pieces, I don’t really see a sexual identity. I guess I’d say I see humanity. Or maybe the gentler qualities ascribed to humankind? And, if not non-racial, certainly not blue-eyed and blonde. Am I way off-course?
Laura Berger: I mostly paint women because that’s my perspective point, but the focus is intentionally not placed on the sexualization of the figure— it’s more about sensuality and comfort in the body and feeling. While feminism also plays a big, underlying role in my work, the themes aren’t exclusively centered around that. I’ve been using the figures as a way to explore our shared humanity, the unifying experiences that we share on emotional or spiritual planes. I’m thinking about things that are more existential and universal, so the characters are used as a representation of all of us, serving as a kind of template to work through these ideas.
Your background in performance and stage sets must influence your work, especially the evident choreography, from Busby Berkeley to Contemporary dance. Do you visualize your bodies in that way?
I’m definitely inspired by dance, and really, any kind of movement. I’m not necessarily thinking of the figures as dancers or dancing, but I want them to be deep in their bodies and physically expressive. I try to use the positions that I’m painting as a way to visually render their psychologies, their inner lives.
Is there a genre of performance that influences your art, and if so, can you explain how?
As far as performance goes, it’s most powerful for me when I connect with it on a felt level, in the gut of the heart. So, really, anything that feels pure and honest is exciting and can be inspirational on a quieter, internal level.
Almost every interview references your devotion to yoga. But beyond that practice, your work celebrates body awareness. Maybe there are a lot of swimmers in the paintings! How important is yoga to the work you do?
I would say that yoga is just really helpful for creativity. I can get a lot of nice visual flashes of imagery any time I’m able to turn down my thinking mind a little. It connects to work for me most in the way that painting, yoga and meditation can be therapeutic and mentally or spiritually expansive. Art and yoga are both practices that help us hook up to the things that are more intangible or exist beyond logical grasp. There are ideas that I'll be working through in my actual life, and I use yoga as one of the tools to do that, but painting is another equally important tool. So, for me, they feel very interconnected; they’re just different ways to get there,
Let’s go back to growing up in Wisconsin. Most artists I interview say they grew up doodling, making art. Did you? Or did that take a backseat to you setting up stage plays in the neighborhood?
I was a child doodler, for sure. I was a pre-Internet kid of the ’80s and all I remember from growing up is doing weird, random creative projects with my friends. We drew and made clothes and magazines and recipe books and board games… but yes, I also loved to sing and play the piano too.
You've been candid about escaping the states during a difficult period in your life. As someone who’s always been based in the Midwest, why did you choose Costa Rica, and how did you adapt to the very different vibe—and the ocean?!
I was in my mid-twenties when a lot of things happened including the death of my father, as well as my friend going to Costa Rica to take a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) course. She invited me to come with her, so I did—I broke my lease, put everything in storage, and sold my car. I love traveling and am generally on board to go anywhere, so this sounded great to me; plus, I knew they had sloths and hammocks there, which seemed much healthier than holing up for a Chicago winter. And, yes, being by the ocean is my favorite thing! It always feels grounding and healing.
It’s interesting how, when we are immersed in grief, it seems the only way we can heal is to focus on ourselves. It sounds selfish, but I guess it’s a healthy kind of self-preservation. This is when you started drawing, right?
I was in a nothing-to-lose sort of place, so I was really just tossing it all up in the air at that point and hoping life would feel better or resettle in a way that I liked more. It’s not usually that simple, but I think it’s healthy to do things like this sometimes. At minimum, it gives you lots of new stories and adventures to add to your life. When I got back to Chicago, then I did have to sit down with what I tried to run away from, and that’s when I started a dedicated painting practice. It became an anchor, something positive to focus on each night and devote my energy to.
When and how did you come to realize that it was what you wanted to do full time?
I had always hoped to be able to pursue creative work, but everyone tells you it’s impossible, so I know I had that in the back of my mind. But I was still trying because I couldn’t see myself working in any other way. I was waiting tables and painting on the side for several years and it just unfolded slowly into a profession for me as I kept working at it.
What drew you back to Chicago, and does it feel nurturing as an art incubator?
All of my belongings and friends were still in Chicago at the time, so it made sense to come back, though I didn’t know how long I would stay. Then I met my future partner at my next job—so I stayed because he’s very nice. Chicago has so much to offer culturally, and, as it used to be really affordable for a large city, it was a great place for us to grow in and feel relatively comfortable with the unpredictable nature of our careers. All that said, I would love to live closer to the ocean or desert and am still hoping to make it to either soon.
I read that, when pursuing acting, you didn't like going out on auditions, which is where someone has to really present their naked self. Although you currently spend your days in what can be the comfortable space of being alone, you seem to like the camaraderie in paintings of groups. Was that a favorite aspect of theater, and does that mesh with being a studio artist?
After school, I started to feel like I was interested in acting, like other people. I think it was more of a time when I really wanted to explore who I was. I just lost interest, though it holds more fascination now that I’m older. The ensemble aspect of any performance work was definitely the best part for me. Working on a big creative endeavor collaboratively felt like a very complete experience. Painting is a very solitary line of work, and I think it’s turned me into a bit of an introvert. I like to paint about themes of family and community and that helps me to feel a sense of connection when I’m alone.
Would you explain your process of making a painting? Do you write down dreams, keep a sketchbook?
I keep a running list of ideas and visuals that come into my head. These can be from dreams, but they’re usually just random, unpredictable thoughts that come up. I record these initial concepts in words, and then, when I start to make some paintings, I revisit the list and spend a lot of time sketching through the ideas that are most compelling to me. From there, I’ll choose the ones that translate the best visually and refine those drawings, maybe try them at different sizes. I also often work through some color variations with the sketch before I start paintings.
Do you have a favorite paint and when does color choice enter the picture? I don’t see many primary colors in your palette. And where have the animals gone? What’s different about making them the subject, rather than human?
I just started using oil paint this year, and I love it. The texture is so enjoyable to work with. I’ve also always loved using Holbein gouache—their palette is amazing. Color decisions happen at different times depending on the painting. Sometimes the palette is what dictates the whole idea, so I’ll have the colors in my head right away; other times I have a general framework, or no idea at all, and have to sort it out while I’m working. It’s the best part of painting for me, as it feels the most natural—color choices tend to come more intuitively, where I have to work harder with my brain at the composition.
I love mixing my own colors, so I suppose that could be why they’re all a bit strayed from center. I feel bad for neglecting to paint the animals of the world because, of course, I love them. Sorry, animals! For the past couple of years, I’ve been focusing on the interactions between figures and creating compositions with the bodies that combine abstract or geometric elements. But my ideas have been moving into a more narrative place lately, so it could be that more animals are on their way.
"The emotions are feeling more on the surface in these paintings. Despite all of the anxiety that’s flowing, I’ve been feeling a strong internal push to try new things, take more risks."
Many painters are trying their hand at sculpture now. Was it natural for you? And how is it, in terms of expressing yourself? Is it as satisfying?
Sculpture is such a fun way to mix it up and get a new perspective on your 2D work, though I wouldn’t say it felt natural to me—I found it pretty challenging. There are so many technical things to learn with ceramics, it really is so impressive. But working with the figure in three dimensions was a nice, tactile way for me to keep learning about form. Using your hands to shape something directly is cool, and feels good and solid, but color is still the most satisfying thing for me, so I stay mostly drawn to painting.
Another trend among painters is going big. It’s not just a matter of having a big canvas. What does that feel like, and how is it in terms of execution and final product?
Yes, there’s such a difference in the feeling of making a painting depending on size. It’s really interesting how everything shifts when going back and forth between smaller and larger works. Working big is physical—it’s freeing and can give me a sense of more looseness or flexibility, both in my own body and the painting itself. I’m coming to prefer it. At the same time, smaller work feels more intimate and quiet, which is nice, though I can go down the rabbit hole with those tiny lines and details.
Since you cite travel as a huge source of inspiration and wisdom, what does it feel like, knowing that the prospects of travel will be limited for some time? What will you miss most?
I realized pretty quickly how much I rely on the option to travel as a way to soothe myself in hard times! Like, things start feeling challenging and my brain automatically jumps to that as an answer. I’ll plan a trip and go somewhere beautiful and be in nature. Beyond everything obvious, like trying new foods and seeing new things, my favorite part is really the experience of existing in a more present, basic state for awhile—you know, you spend your time just figuring out survival: transportation systems, where to eat, how to communicate, where to sleep. Everything is simplified, but also complex in fresh ways. This quarantine time has made me realize how grateful I am for the traveling I have done, and I’ve been thinking about those memories a lot. It feels like we’re being tasked to move to a more internal, deeper place of focus. So, working through things from there, ideas have to come from the well for now. I’ve also been thinking about how, even though we’re having such limited external experiences during this time, we’re also having all kinds of new intense, internal experiences just from living through this period in history. There’s plenty of inspiration to be found in the depths of delving into our solitude, but I really miss traveling and am storing up my miles for the future.
As of late, we’ve all jointly experienced fear of illness, physical isolation, and possibly dual (and duelling?) emotions of sadness and energy surrounding societal upheaval. Have you noticed a change in the concepts you want to explore, in your ability to work?
Yes, absolutely. There’s just so much going on, on every level. I think there’s this collective sense of being stuck in the uncomfortable endings right now, and wading through that indefinitely, doing what we can together until we can reach some new beginnings. When the pandemic started, at first I felt totally unable to work creatively—I just got really wrapped up in all of the emotions, in the sadness and fear. After a little while, I forced myself to sit down every day and just work with colors while I listened to music, in response to the music. That was helpful and kept me in touch with painting so I didn’t feel adrift. Then I had some deadlines start to come up, so I had to get back into the full-time studio groove, but my focus has definitely been shifted during this time, along with everything, I suppose. My ideas have been requiring some things I wanted to achieve visually that I thought I would work better with a different paint, so I started using oils. The emotions are feeling more on the surface in these paintings. Despite all of the anxiety that’s flowing, I’ve been feeling a strong internal push to try new things, take more risks. Which feels exciting and uncertain and also like, well, why the hell not? Kind of like everything right now. It’s been such an intense and overwhelming time, but we, as a society, are learning huge things together right now, and I do know that change often comes from the ashes, so I’m hopeful for the future.
Laura Berger will open a solo show with Hashimoto Contemporary, NYC in mid-November, 2020.