“The Point is to Encourage and Uplift” | A Conversation with Catherine Bergmann
Catherine Bergmann does things her own way. Having studied art and religion before becoming, first, the education director and then the curator she is today at the Dunedin Fine Art Center, Bergmann is in the unique position whereby she understands the power of art but doesn’t take it all so preciously serious, appreciating the practical essentials behind an ongoing robust community arts practice.
She says she didn’t have the harsh experience often relayed by people growing up in Catholic household.
“My experience was very expansive — loving, inclusive and my understanding of God was at once grand (supreme being) but also intimate (my daily companion),” she said. “As a child, feeling in sync, in touch with God was natural to my everyday life. Fast forward to high school when I was introduced to a more Protestant version of Christianity which led me to study religion at Flagler College with Dr. Mattie Hart, a scholar and Presbyterian pastor. Meeting Mattie, who was so smart, genuine, humble made me think that I might like to be a minister someday. Of course, priesthood was never an option for me in the Catholic Church. Ultimately, I was compelled to explore myself plus my life outside the confines of organized religion. I have always been moved by community, connection to others and the natural world, always interested in healing — spirit, the body, culture.”
So what did Catherine do instead? She became an artist, studying at Florida State University under William Walmsley, who’s known as the Ding Dong Daddy. He innovated fluorescent ink lithography.
“He was a wild guy and he was already in his 60s when I studied with him,” she said. “He did these crazy maps that incorporated words and cartoon anatomies and sexual terms and he was really out there. So I learned lithography,”
She works with objects and whatever the hell she wants really, spending time in the hardware store with strange connectors; glass, found ceramics, beeswax, cotton tubing and love of ideas.
“I’ve always enjoyed working with the language — the title becomes a springboard but doesn’t tie you down,” she said. “It’s more like poetry where you’re invited to bring your own associations, it’s not a literal translation I’m holding you to. It’s more of an invitation and that’s the kind of work that moves me.”
Because the Dunedin Fine Art Center is currently featuring contemporary artists from Cuba, Catherine was surprised when I called her from the snowy mountain town of Cuba, New Mexico. Although she is an artist and curator at the DFAC, I first addressed her study of religion and healing, and she mentioned how much she loved this place because people who study alternative healing methods often love New Mexico.
“I went to massage school in Safety Harbor when I was unexpectedly pregnant and I thought. ‘Oh my gosh what am I going to do?’ I was an artist working at Barnes and Noble at the time and I wasn’t married,” she said. “So I decided to go to massage school. But I’ve never been to New Mexico. That’s what I got a kick out of, that’s our show right now, it’s about Cuba.”
The Cuba show is people from the community traveling there and taking photos?
That’s one of the shows, that’s in the single gallery, it’s called Cuba: New Eyes, that highlights four different photographers and each went individually. One was from the group that came from the art center group I went with in 2015. One is Kirk Ke Wang.
He’s the best!
He is, he’s so wonderful. I think that was earlier in 2016. We went at the end of 2015. And Leslie Joy Ickowitz, the editor for Vertical Tampa Bay, she’s the first of this group that went. That was mid 2015. We went as delegates from the Arts Center, because you still can’t really go as a tourist from the U.S. You have to go as a people-to-people cultural exchange. I don’t think it’s been entirely worked out.
Do you have a Cuban-artist show too?
We have two other galleries occupied by a show that went by the working title of Oye Como Va: Contemporary Cuban Artists. That came about an alliance with a wonderful curator we met when we traveled to Cuba. We got to go to ISA (Instituto Superior de Arte), the main art school, and met some of the teachers and students and went to the printmaking labs and the ceramics studio. It was really amazing. That school is very famous architecturally because it was created by a team of architects organized by Che Guevara and they took over a country club outside of Havana and the main architect designed the school with the inspiration of a reclining woman figure. The idea is you enter the woman’s body and there’s all these corridors and domes that are the different departments; the idea of going in as an artist and giving birth to their creations. And anyone can go, it’s not just for Cubans.
Do they have a graduate department?
I don’t think so. I asked about that too.
So my editor thought I should interview you particularly because you have a strong working knowledge of the power of art but you don’t take it all too seriously.
I think that comes along with the fact that I’m an artist/curator vs someone who came to curating through the study of art history. I found that over the years under the guidance of my current director. She began to send us to the American Association of Museums Conference which is held in a new city every year. What I found by going to those conferences, which I’ve had the fortune of doing for the past decade, is that when I would attend the curatorial sessions, I found that most curators are really pigeon holed and controlled by their specialization. For most museums, you have an area of expertise and that’s what you operate under and from and all your work surrounds exploring that period of time or that artistic movement. So working at an art center, we don’t have a permanent collection. Our prime mission is education.
I’ve been here for 17 years so most of that time I worked as the director of education as well as the curator. I asked to become the curator when our prior curator left, he was the husband of our prior director. When David left I had already been doing the education for a number of years but as a working artist, my real love was making art myself and seeing art and showing it and I just enjoyed so much the conceptual forming of themes and particularly the installations — that’s my greatest joy. But we’re in a unique situation here; we’re a learning institution primarily, and for all ages, some of our students are in their 90s. We even had a 100 year old doing stone carving. So we have the little ones and we have a hands-on museum and we’re offering instruction every step of the way. There’s just so much freedom there. And there’s also a very democratic embrace because every time we do an exhibition cycle we have a competition that we call to the community, encouraging our students and faculty and artists beyond, around Tampa Bay to participate. In that regard, the point is to encourage and uplift.
Yes, we want to works to be of highest quality but when people are learning and growing, I’ve never wanted to hinder that spirit, the Art Center, in that way. It was a philanthropic effort from the community. It’s 40 years old and it’s still very much a community and grassroots-sort-of-feeling place.
Right now we have a show called We Are Family. That’s our call to the community with the Cuban shows. Originally I wanted to do a show around the idea of the wall and then I was like hell no! Are you putting up walls? Are you dismantling walls? The Great wall. The Berlin wall. But then I just thought I don’t even want to.
Because it would just be too crazy?
I could just feel the vicious energies and I just didn’t want to. It still would’ve been interesting. There’s enough of that. I chose instead to emphasize our interconnectedness. It’s always very free, the interpretation. People did portraits of their family or portraits of their travels. There were people and their animals and animals’ families and aliens. There were aliens. We always try to show work that’s exciting and fresh and current and I curate from the web primarily. I’ve brought artists from Art Basel too. I’m going already with themes in mind, and then we’ve had artists from abroad so it’s not just limited to the continental U.S.
Who are your own favorite artists?
I always loved Louise Bourgeois, Phillip Guston. I really love conceptual works and Ann Hamilton who works with words and text and large-scale installations with unusual materials.
People love Dunedin’s art scene so much. Whenever Dunedin comes up, their eyes, their mouths are filled with light and inspiration when they talk about the Dunedin art scene. What is going on?
It is! It’s truly a magical place. What I can attribute that to is it has a very strong arts identity. My grandpa came here in the ’50s. As I watched it evolve, it’s a very open community, a very diverse community. The bike trail, the Pinellas Trail going straight through town from the old rails helped change the nature of our downtown, but there were some really key movers and shakers who kind of opened up our downtown and gave permission for us to let our hair down. My uncle Bob who we figured now must’ve been gay (A speculation Catherine says breaks her heart because no one knew and it must’ve been hard to keep a secret from his family), he went to this bar called Dallape’s, they had an old Moulin Rouge poster in the little marquis — it’s now the Blur which is a danceclub with drag shows.
There’s a lot of freedom and open-heartedness and diversity in our town. The Art Center’s relationship with the city is very unique that the land the art center is built upon is owned by the city. The Junior League, they’re known for filling a need in the community, getting the seed money together and turning it over to the community. We’ve grown so much in the 17 years I’ve been here, we’ve undergone three expansions.
Any sneak peek for upcoming shows?
One thing we remained true to, and I credit this with the longevity, is that we saw some of our pals go by the wayside. Some of our sister organizations in the Tampa Bay area like the Gulf Coast Art Center go down and not everybody has made it in these recent years. But what I want to say is we’ve stayed close to our mission in education so with that in mind, one of our old standbys that we would never give up is our student members faculty show and that takes over the whole Art Center! We have a lot of students. This session alone we have 700 students! It’s morning, noon and night and weekends, that includes the kids as well but those classes are smaller during the school year. Everybody can submit one piece and nobody is turned away. It’s really a beautiful thing and it’s a huge turnout and the whole family comes and we invite a guest judge. We give cash awards and it’s really a beautiful thing. That’s coming up next.