Hi! Amy here. This instalment of the Montreal Maker Series is super special to me. Bernice Sorge is the mother of my husband’s best friend. She doesn’t live in Montreal, but she was the very first person I thought of when we dreamed up this series! I have attended two weddings, a few birthdays and many summer nights on Bernice’s beautiful property in the Eastern Townships of Quebec (about 100kms from Montreal). I have inherited one of her wild rose bushes and been blessed to hear her amazing slam poetry on said special occasions. I always leave her with ideas percolating in my head and full of the feeling that I wouldn’t mind getting older and having it all figured out like this beautiful, vibrant artist. How she maintained her creative spirit while having three young boys, and a partner who lived in Montreal at a teaching post when they moved out to the country in the late 70s, is beyond me. Or, maybe that’s exactly how she learned how important it is to live your making practice and make time for your own art. Either way, I am searching for guidance in this area as I near my 40s as a mother of two young kids, and since I always find inspiration in Bernice, she was a natural fit for this interview. We made her a Sienna Maker Jacket which I hope she gets covered in paint, because like everything she touches with colour, it would only get better.
We shot these images at her art studio/church/coop printing press/school/gallery and all-around amazing space, which she stumbled on in the 80s, more or less abandoned in the woods. It was built in the late 1800’s and went from a United Church to a theatre troupe to a severely tilting building all the contractors she spoke to said “not to touch with a ten foot pole”. It’s a good thing she didn’t listen to them because there was plenty that was worth preserving in this gorgeous structure. She did the work slowly, bit by bit, enlisting those three boys summer after summer, restoring the windows, stripping back the floorboards and painting and landscaping. The space is full of light and fresh country air, but it is also filled with an unmistakable energy that vibrates with creativity. There is nothing still or dusty about Bernice’s studio and that’s because she is such a kinetic artist. Her works are constantly evolving and she always follows her artistic impulses whether that be in her garden, her studio or somewhere in between. I asked her a few questions to try and garner some creative wisdom and also how to figure out how to hack my life to look exactly like hers…or at least a little bit.
How has your art practice evolved over time?
My creative process is about renewal, despair and hope, destruction and re-creation. Through this and nature that surrounds me, I am able to go on, to explore further and take on challenges. My paintings never seem to have an end – even if a painting is up against the wall, seemingly finished, I might pick it up and repaint it or tear it up and collage with it. Painting is a continual process of renewal. It is only when a work is taken away that there is no possibility of transformation.
How has living in where you do informed your art practice?
When I travel or work in other places or studios I often bring that attachment with me. It often demands to be integrated into the new place. A few years ago I was awarded a two month residency in the city of Montreal. The morning I left I packed the car and took one last stroll around my studio. I saw a shadow on the compost pile and could not resist taking photos. These photos combined with ones I had taken spontaneously on my walks around the city became the basis of a new series of digital prints.
How do your various hobbies intersect (re: gardening, seed saving, print making)? Was that a conscious decision? What aspects came first?
The idea for the botanical prints of large leaves taken from wild plants ( some domesticated perennials) happened one day when I was once again taking burdocks from my dog’s fur and children’s hair. I asked myself how I could get rid of some of these giant plants without using poisons or destroying the whole balance within the little ecosystem where they grew. I wondered if I could use some of them to make prints. I took one to my studio to experiment. It was quite frustrating because the leaf squished out its juice all over the paper and the press!
After weeks of trying I got a reasonable looking print and eventually developed a formula of preparing the leaves so that I could make a mould and print them to perfection. From then on I began a project of collecting wild plants, making printing plates, writing the names in Latin, French and English etc. and researching to find out if they are edible, of course.
Do you ever find yourself in an artistic funk? What do you do to get out of it? How do you find inspiration?
Surrounding the studio is a large field and a little wood. I work in the field a few times a week, sometimes with the help of friends, on a long term project to change it into an edible forest garden (permaculture). Everything is being done by hand except for the use of a small rototiller. I guess I am a part-time farmer. Often after a half-day of working with the soil I feel renewed and more creative and open. So I go inside and paint or prepare a new wild printing plate. The outside work is important in that it nourishes what I do inside. My energy is heightened and I am ready to take on anything, even a painting that needs to be taken apart, painted over, or destroyed.
You mentioned research. What form does that take and what are your jumping-off places for that?
I have kept the DNA of each plant I print, so that when wild plants are eventually transformed by genetic modification I will have the original matter for a future when the farmers will need old varieties for the survival of domestic plants. All of this is the scientist in me. I do not see a disconnect between science and art. Both use the steps of the creative process from the first decision around the quest, to the exploration and the recording of the results. For me the original prints are the data, and the source of that data, the land and environment around my special studio.
Thank you Bernice! If you’d like to discover her work, be sure to check out her website here.
Fit & Modification Notes:
For Bernice’s Sienna we made a straight size 12 from our 0-20 size range and added some cuff tabs. To do so, we cut strips of fabric and folded in three of the edges at 1/4″. We put a small square of interfacing in between the layers on one end, folded them in half and topstitched all around. We added buttonholes to the ends with the interfacing. We then attached them to the top sleeve before we assembled the sleeves on the wrong side of the fabric using a crossed square top stitch pattern to attach the button to. Make sure your cuff tabs ends at least 1″ inside your sleeves (don’t forget your hem allowance) so they don’t stick out when your sleeves are down. Sew buttons on using a thick thread shanks and then assemble sleeves.
(Photos by James Andrew Rosen.)