- Olivia Niuman | 52 O Street Studios
"Drawing is Everything to Me" : Jeff Berg, October Featured Artist
“Drawing is everything to me” Jeffrey Berg told me as we sat in his studio at 52 O Street, a cozy space on the third floor where his luminous drawings cover almost every square inch of wall space.
Jeff Berg's third floor studio at 52 O Street Studios
Berg has been drawing for as long as he can remember: he is drawn (no pun intended) to the dry medium for its immediacy and its affinity to narrative, which plays a large role in his practice. The love of drawing is at the core of what he does; the movement of the pencil allows him to layer color and achieve an undulating luminosity and transparency that he prefers over paint or any other liquid medium. We discuss the primacy of drawing - a pencil or crayon is the first artistic medium a child reaches for, and drawing a sketch is often a stage before an artwork is finished. Berg’s drawings do not come across as mere sketches- they have a definitive presence to them, an energy of completeness and self-possession as the figures regard the viewer confidently, sometimes even defiantly.
The artist has had a studio at 52 O Street Studios for just around three years, and it has provided him a very welcome place to retreat to over the COVID-19 pandemic. The studio space is immensely important to his practice as a place to focus intensely and retreat from life, allowing him to dive deeper into the stories and people he is interested in exploring through his work. Prior, he had many careers, one of which was as a mental health counselor. He has always been interested in people and their stories, something that has held true in his previous line of work and now as a full-time artist. Working as a mental health professional allowed him to develop real empathy for people and their stories. He is emphatic about respecting the privacy of people that he has worked with; while sometimes themes from their stories serve as inspiration, the people themselves are never the subjects of a portrait, nor are their stories taken directly.
Although Berg draws people, he is not a portraitist. Inspiration often comes from photographs- from the news, or from a photograph in a vintage photo album, of which he has many in his studio. He is most interested in the gestures, stories, and relationships between people in the photographs. One can sense the reanimation of the past in his work, where shades of brown and gray tinged with color portray the feeling of an old black-and-white movie recolored. It is this sense of the past and present meeting that gives Berg’s work its spark. While strangers provide inspiration with their faces, gestures, or relationships, their true identities are forever a mystery. This lack of knowledge allows Berg to step into a place of imaginative speculation from which the drawings proceed. The simultaneous anonymity and familiarity of the figures also allow the viewer to intervene in the process, forming their own relationship with the people on the drawing mimicking Berg’s process with the figures in his source photographs. Who are these people? How do they relate to me? What are they thinking or feeling? These are questions that Berg intentionally explores, reanimates, and presents to the viewer for contemplation.
Berg in his studio contemplating a work in progress
Just as his work forges a connection between past and present, many of his pieces are also created with an aim towards social justice and uniting people in the face of oppression. Sometimes a particularly emotional news headline will spark inspiration for a drawing. One of his pieces, titled “The Heart is the Human Shield” features several figures with the arms crossed in front of each other, spanning three pieces of paper forming a triptych. The title speaks to a common practice during protests, and this theme of common care between strangers aligns itself with the larger themes of Berg’s practice. The hands bridging the gaps between the physical pieces of paper draw the viewer into their space and provide possibilities for connection and care despite physical limitations. As our reality today is fragmented by forms of communication or political rifts, finding common ground and care for each other is a theme particularly well-expressed in such an intimate medium as drawing with pencil and paper.
Berg in front of a few of his drawings