High Plains Curators-IN CONVERSATION: Brendt Berger with Jim Long
I’ve recently been thinking a lot about the Museum of Friends (MOF), located in the former coal mining town of 4,000 in Walsenburg, Colorado. Co-founders Brendt and Maria Cocchiarelli-Berger arrived in the town, having lived adventurous and creative lives in various places around the country, including NYC, and together established a 6,000-square-foot museum and cultural center to serve the community and house their combined collections of art: first-rate work given, donated, and lent by friends and fellow artists over many years. New York artists would recognize names like Richard Mock, Dennis Oppenheim, Linda Fleming, Dean Fleming, Fairfield Porter, Jason Crum, Larry Zox, Nancy Genn, Yoko Ono, Susan Metrican, Robert Sussman, Mark di Suvero, and more than a hundred others from both coasts as well as towns and communes in between. Walsenburg is now a town in transition (the mines are closed), on the main highway between Denver, CO, and Santa Fe, NM in Huerfano County. (The name means “orphan,” referring to a lone volcanic plug rock formation in the High Plains above the valley.) The reason I’ve been thinking about Brendt and Maria is that there are people scattered across the country who made a commitment to social, political, and cultural justice decades ago who are still finding creative ways to continue to shoulder that ongoing responsibility. It’s a life of small but well-earned successes. Through all, they have kept faith, as the saying goes, with buoyant and effective optimism in the belief that a good museum need not come on as an exclusive institution in order to survive, and that well-made, “difficult” art can feel less difficult when it is part of the life of a community. Good art is inspirational anywhere and everywhere. There are creative, active artist/curators in many towns and cities. Because of Brendt and Maria’s time spent in New York, I felt MOF would be an interesting place to visit.
In the summer of 2009 20 high school art students and I stepped off a bus and crossed a hot, dry highway crowded with 16-wheelers and what was left of a hot-rod and custom car show in the next town. Brendt was waiting on the sidewalk to take us up and show us the museum. Following our visit, I asked him if he would reflect on his experiences as an artist, activist, and, now, museum co-director:
Jim Long (Rail): Before we talk about MOF, can you say a little about your history as an artist?
Brendt: In 1959 I studied with the Pop artist, then a landscape painter, Wayne Thiebaud, and landscape painter Greg Condos at Sacramento City College. My influences were figure painters David Park and Elmer Bischoff. Then, pursuing my Hawaiian ancestry, I transferred to the University of Hawaii where the revolutionary Mexican muralist Jean Charlot, Abstract Expressionist painter Bert Carpenter, and relief printmaker Ed Stasack became my primary interests.
Rail: Afterwards returning to California?
Brendt: With a BFA, in 1964. I took a studio in Richmond where I taught printmaking at the Richmond Art Center. Then, a year later, I traveled through Mexico, and taught a workshop in intaglio printmaking at the University of Juarez in Durango. In Ajijic I became friendly with two New York City artists and bartered a studio on the corner of Spring and Lafayette. By December I had a studio of my own on the corner of West Broadway and Broome. I began teaching printmaking at SVA in 1967.
Rail: There were a few galleries downtown by then. Did you show work?
Brendt: In 1968 I was in a five-person show organized by art critic Gene Swenson at NYU, and in the biannual print exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. Brooke Alexander began handling and selling my prints, and Ivan Karp from Leo Castelli Gallery asked me to be in the opening show of his own new gallery. Jason Crum, co-founder of City Walls, and I did a show in my ground floor studio of recent work.
Rail: Should we mention you offered a choice of alcoholic or psychedelic punch?
Brendt: We were slowly pushing boundaries at the time.
Rail: And a commitment to social and political activism.
Brendt: As a student in California there were San Francisco HUAC hearings and subsequent student demonstrations. In Hawaii I witnessed a hydrogen bomb test from 900 miles away. I saw Martin Luther King and met James Farmer civil rights activists, and returning to California in 1964 I was involved in civil rights demonstrations in Oakland, and the Free Speech movement and Vietnam War teach-ins at Berkeley. There was LSD culture, the Summer of Love in the Haight, and the first be-ins. The be-ins continued in Central Park and Tompkins Square Park in New York.
Rail: It was an intense time. A lot of people now don’t realize how much work and commitment were involved; how close the war in Southeast Asia was to our lives.
Brendt: By 1968 I was looking for alternatives. I drove up the West Coast to Vancouver, BC with an eye on the border for a possible retreat. A few months after returning to NYC I saw an ad in the Village Voice for a house for sale on the Maine coast for $750. I drove up and bought the house. It was a 12-hour drive from New York. I found there were others like myself from New York who had gone up for similar reasons. In 1970 I left New York and moved to Eastport, ME with my wife at the time, who was pregnant. Wandering people from all over the country passed through and some stayed, becoming the foundation of a vibrant community: the sun spot family association. The counterculture was in the air everywhere.
Rail: You founded your first artist community center there in Eastport.
Brendt: I sold a relief-sculpture to designer Bill Blass and with the proceeds bought an abandoned fish factory. We had about six months of dreams. Then one night, on a particularly high 28 foot spring tide, our 300 foot, two-story building on piers over the water slid into the sea. I awoke to find the Coast Guard knocking on my door, informing me the bad news and that I had to contain the mass to prevent damage to ships. We had our work cut out.
Rail: Cold dangerous work.
Brendt: Twenty-six-foot tides twice a day, and water temperatures around 40 degrees. That, and other tough experiences, lack of money, severe climate: it drained psyches. People got on each other. For me it didn’t work.
Rail: You came back to the city?
Brendt: Yes, but not right away. My wife and I traveled across America, visiting nine alternative artist communities. It was 1973. Drop City in Trinidad, CO; Libre in Farista, CO; USCO in Gardner, NY; and Rancho Linda Vista in Oracle, AZ interested us. We stayed on at the Rancho Linda Vista for six months before returning to Maine. About a year later I was back in NY.
Rail: And began organizing again?
Brendt: We organized with artists, forming the OIA, the Organization of Independent Artists, in 1977, to exhibit in Federal buildings throughout Manhattan. That culminated, for me personally, in a proposal to Joan Mondale and GSA administrator Jay Solomon to start a federal Art Bank for the support of artists either through direct purchase and/or rental of artwork.
Rail: Let’s jump ahead a couple of decades. How did you come to settle in Walsenburg? It’s a place I’ve been through on a bus a few times, and it seemed like an interesting town.
Brendt: I originally came to the Huerfano County to visit fellow-artist Dean Fleming who was one of the originating members of the artist community called Libre, close to Gardner, CO. Walsenburg reminds me in some respects of many neighborhoods I’ve lived in—straight-forward working people. I’ve known Dean Fleming since 1965 when I first moved to New York.
Rail: Dean Fleming showed paintings at Park Place Gallery back then.
Brendt: He, Linda Fleming (then his wife), and Tony Magar, also a Park Place artist, came out to do sculpture in the park in Denver in 1967. They visited Drop City in Trinidad, CO, and were inspired to do something similar by Dropper Rick Cline.
Rail: (Drop City was founded by art students and filmmakers from the University of Kansas and the University of Colorado. It grew out of ideas beginning at Black Mountain College, R. Buckminster Fuller, John Cage, and Allan Kaprow “happenings.” It was intended to be a “living work of art,” and in 1967 won Fuller’s Rail: Award. Thanks Wikipedia!)
Brendt: Libre was the first art commune in the Huerfano Valley, quickly followed by five other communes and three Buddhist communities, all still alive today but one.
Rail: And how do you see your museum in this context?
Brendt: I see the museum as an extension of the ideas of the community, where each person is valued for what they offer, contributing to the whole of one another.
Rail: With all the new responsibilities, are you still able to make your own work?
Brendt: The answer is yes, but I’d like to be doing more. At first I thought MOF would become more self-sustaining and I would have more time painting; but then the more I get into this museum, the more committed I become. For instance, a dear friend in Hawaii, painter Harry Tsuchidana, sent us 60 original paintings, which I love and am thrilled to accept; however it simply ups the ante on my commitment to not let him down. Today Maria and I received a large five piece Richard Mock painting.
Rail: Have you needed to modify your goals?
Brendt: MOF’s primary goals are to foster the open inquiry necessary to a cultural education and its ideals: through exhibitions, a reference library, and public programs. We have more than 600 works of art in the collection.
Rail: I recognized a lot of old friends and interesting work on the walls: Robert Sussman, Linda Fleming, Dan Christiansen, Larry Zox, Arnold Wechsler, Nancy Genn, Ken Showell, Susan Metrican, Al Loving, Bruce Nauman. Fairfield Porter’s work is here, and your press release mentions at least 135 women and men, many of whose work I don’t know.
Brendt: Maria and I married a few years ago, and the collection is a combination of works from our different circles of friends; and because each of us lived in many locations, it reflects a large range of both mainstream and regional art. It’s a labor of love.
Rail: And if an interview has an end, that’s an upbeat way. Thank you for founding an inspiring museum together, and for giving time to the Rail.