“Only the land lasts. Birds and animals and humans come and go, passing through as a thunderhead before the sun.” –Doug Peacock
The above quote from Doug Peacock’s book “Walking It Off” came to mind as I reflected on Laura Berman’s work, because in a life that was under frequent changes, she also formed an attachment to the land. Or more specifically, to rocks, which she has been collecting since she was three years old. Berman began teaching at the Kansas City Art Institute in 2002, and her eight years in the city are by far the longest span of time she has lived in one place. Growing up, Berman lived in more than ten different states, and while the people and places around her were constantly changing she built a collection rocks from the places she went.
Laura Berman stands amid several of her rock inspired prints
She said that she collects rocks mainly for aesthetic reasons, but that her collection has a lot of personal meaning by being a record of her life and the places she’s been. In recent years her rocks have become a source of inspiration for her work. “I don’t really identify myself with necessarily a landscape, or a community, or a house, or a geography, but I really do identify with the objects I move with. So the rocks are sort of the first attempt of saying that with my work,” she said.
Although Berman’s inspiration is obviously three-dimensional objects, she approaches the subject two-dimensionally through printmaking techniques. Starting out, her first use of rock imagery involved creating life-sized images of rocks from her collection by cutting plastic plates to size and incising marks on the plate with an etching needle. The resulting images are very simple and were not editioned, but Berman said that she preferred to print rather than draw the images because the process allowed her more freedom with them. She produced several different compositions by inking and arranging the plates differently each time, coming up with a collection of unique pieces from the same source.
One impressive result she achieved with them actually went far beyond the limits of the page. Between 2007 and 2009 she produced 200 of these plates depicting rocks from her collection, and, printing up to 10 images of each plate, ended up with 1500 individual images. Each of these were then cut out and individually mounted to the wall, creating a large installation out of hundreds of small works.
Her single-page compositions using these plates were very free-handed, with a short amount of time spent coming up with the arrangement, as are most of her recent compositions. “I think about music a lot when I work,” she said. “I’m not a musician, but I think about what kind of music I like and how it’s composed. How there’s variations on a theme, and there’s rhythm and balance, different instruments that come in or go out. I just think about those relationships and tone as a parallel to how I print and sort of my own creative process.”
Her free-style compositions in these older works are indeed very rhythmic, and it is a quality that she has expanded upon in her more recent pieces. In her newer works, the rock images have been abstracted into softly-curved forms of solid color. These forms often overlap because she will run the same sheet of paper through the press several times, changing the configuration and colors of the plates to fit what she sees happening on the paper. She has also begun to make the shapes much larger to fit the huge compositions she’s moved towards.
In the summer of 2009 she was invited by Amanda Verbeck to work at Pele Prints in St. Louis, where was turned loose on a 10-foot-long press that allowed her to make much larger work than she normally could. She enjoyed working larger than usual because to her it was like a new approach to the installation piece she had already done. “A lot of my pieces and a lot of the way that I approach plates and things like that is a more of a full view. It can go in any direction. It can become large, it can become more expansive than just what’s on the paper,” she said. The experience at Pele Prints inspired her to continue working large, and most of the work she produces now is on roughly 4’x5’ sheets of paper, sometimes with two or three sheets contributing to a single composition.
The resulting effect of these large prints is powerful because it is almost antithetical of the imagery. Berman’s first prints using her rock collection as inspiration were rather small, which matched the feeling of the personal sentiments behind the images by offering a small, contained glimpse into her emotions. But seeing the same type of work expanded into large scale can cause the viewer to feel as if they are entering Berman’s psyche. Injecting her personal feelings into her work is something Berman seems to do often, and not always necessarily intentionally.
One set of plates she worked with were similar to her rock prints, but more resembled speech bubbles with a pointed tail coming off one end of the form, allowing her to create a directionality to the compositions. “There’s some where I point the tails in, and some where I point the tails out, and I think there is some sort of communication going on or some kind of relationship – interior and exterior. I was pregnant when I made the prints, so I think I was thinking inward as well as outward,” she said. But it wasn’t until later that she drew the connection between her work and her present state of mind. “In retrospect you get this perspective on your work, like ‘oh, yeah. It’s totally the work I made when I was pregnant.’ I don’t always realize what’s happening,” she said.
Being a teacher already made it difficult for Berman to find time to work in the studio, so since becoming a mother she has enlisted interns from KCAI to help produce her own work. Her current intern, Sarah Bogosh, a printmaking undergraduate from Chicago, has been a major factor in allowing Berman’s work to be made lately. Coincidentally, Bogosh uses rock formations and imagery in her own work lately, although in a much different way than her teacher. She has lots of time to develop her style and ideas with more than a year left at KCAI, and with her experience working with Berman it is entirely possible that I will be writing a feature about her in not too long because not every printmaking undergrad has the advantage of working with a teacher so open to non-traditional modes of working. “We can get really caught up in the proper utility of print and what printmaking is,” she said. “Personally, for me, it’s a medium that’s expanded my view of how to fill space and think about my work in the world, and I don’t feel limited to just the rectangular page.”
This article’s primary focus is on Berman’s more recent work, but her portfolio contains a wide array of other types of work. Her other work can be viewed on her website here, and some samples are shown below.
Image from "Tumbleweed Project", 2003.
"Intro/Retro Spection Project", 2004
"Intro/Retro Spection Project", 2004.
Image from "Kiss the rocks and make them cry", 2007. In this project Berman collaged relief printed images onto rocks gathered from near her birthplace in Catalunya, Spain.
Image from "Scratch 'n' sniff", a series of prints scented with orange and grape fragranced inks.
Images from the series "Umbras" printed at Pele Prints. Almost 5 feet in their longest dimension, these were produced at the same time as her 'teardrop' compositions and several other large-scale works.