Aging Gracefully in Paint

As an artist, Becca Bernstein ‘00 draws inspiration from the mystery and wisdom she sees in the faces of elderly women.

As a part-time activities director at a residential care home in Portland, Becca bernstein isn’t supposed to have favorites. Yet she considered a former resident named Mary–a tiny birdlike woman with a proclivity for moodiness and confrontation–a true friend.

“I loved her powerful personality,” says Bernstein. “She refused to be convenient or fit in a box.”

As an artist, Bernstein draws inspiration from the mystery and wisdom she sees in the faces of elderly women.

“Becca Bernstein is a painter and a humanist who redefines the art of portrait, expressing the intimate personality of her models beyond their physical appearance,” says Jean Luc Laminette of Portland’s Galerie d’Art Sylvie Platini.

In 2005, Bernstein received the first Kimberly Gales Emerging Talent Scholarship, awarded in honor of a Portland Open Studios artist and board member who died last year. The scholarship provides a cash prize and guaranteed entry into the Portland Open Studios annual self-guided tour of artists’ studios.

In October 2005, several hundred people wandered through Bernstein’s 18-by-18-foot converted garage studio on Alberta Street in Northeast Portland.

Reactions to her work varied.

“Some people said that I found dignity in aging,” says Bernstein. “Some cried. Some were frightened. Others invented fictional stories about my subjects.”

The women she portrays, Bernstein says, are very humble and somewhat surprised that she has found inspiration in their “ugly mugs.”

Bernstein has been drawing with photographic precision since she was a child. After graduating cum laude from Lewis & Clark in 2000, she traded pencil for paintbrush and began experimenting with unusual surfaces such as slate, wood, and fabric. Paintings in her recent series on quilts represent the stitched-together pieces of complex lives.

“Every little square absorbs differently,” she says. “Sometimes paint just sits on the surface and adds a three-dimensional quality. Sometimes a seam folds across an eye.”

Recently, Bernstein completed a commission for the Oregon Ballet Theatre. The large-scale assemblage features 13 pairs of used ballet shoes sewn onto canvas and embellished with paint.

Her work has been exhibited in Portland at the Galerie d’Art Sylvie Platini, the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center Gallery, and the Gottlieb Gallery, as well as in Eugene and in Glenelg, Scotland. 

Bernstein says she values the duality of her career. For three days each week, she dresses up, adheres to schedules, and sometimes feels “like the most popular girl on campus” as she works to enrich the lives of seniors. The balance of her week is steeped in an unstructured creative flow. Sometimes she paints for eight hours a day, sometimes for several days, sometimes not again for months. 

“I don’t want to be a rock star and burn out,” she says. “I want to live to a ripe old age of 128 and be an artist throughout.”

–by Pattie Pace