Robert Amos: Artist embraced darkness and light

A star blinked out — the artist known as Rachel Berman (and previously, as Susan King) is no longer with us.

Born in Victoria in 1946, Rachel Berman’s paintings were exhibited at North Park, Fran Willis and Winchester Galleries — old, new and Modern — and in Toronto by the Ingram Gallery. But her artistry made its most intimate impact on those to whom she delivered — usually by bicycle, in the early hours of morning — envelopes stuffed with drawings, philosophy, calligraphy, rambling love letters and apt poetry that would burst open in a shower of rose petals on the breakfast table.

“I thought I’d write one more note,” she began a letter to me some time ago, “certainly not the last. Ah! How can I explain my life? Should I? Save by beginning on a story there is no time to finish and might have no end. It involved so many ways of feeling that to others is inexplicable, a rigmarole of incomprehensible motives, misguided folly, perhaps simply hopeless reachings after what from the beginning was already lost, all the confused and indirect ways by which we come to a place light years from where we began and what does it mean to see all this feelingly?”

Raised as Susan King in Victoria by foster parents, Berman flew the coop at an early age and fell into wild ways. She worked as a commercial artist when necessary, and her quirky animal characters — Mooky McBeth, Vanessa Vanilla — proliferated, first as greeting cards and eventually as illustrations for two children’s books, Pigmalion (written by Glenda Leznoff, 1999) and Bradley McGogg and Miss Mousie’s Blind Date (both by Tim Beiser, both nominated for the Governor General’s Award).

Her gallery oils were deeper. From the mean streets of London to Dublin, New York, Toronto and downtown Vancouver, this solitary, hard-working artist sketched anonymous sitters in housekeeping rooms and the worn lobbies of downtown hotels. Beautifully crafted in sooty colours, her canvases echo the existential angst, but her heart is always loving.

This artist’s own life exacted a pitiless toll: “I knew or at least suspected I was HIV-positive long long before it became a “talking public” issue,” she wrote to me in 1997. “I tried to cover it up and people thot (sometimes because of excuses I made and other times because of how it looked) that I had cancer, mental illness, anorexia, & probably things I’ve never heard of or found out about. The truth is I was so ashamed of my drug habit, alcohol abuse, lifestyle, DISEASE & being LESBIAN and Positive that I just quite simply started to be what I thought would make me acceptable. The only truth in all the rumours is yes that I am Positive and now doing very well & the drugs & alcohol are largely history. Lesbian and OUT very much happily yes and, without going into the Road to Recovery which would make the life of Frankenstein seem like a fairy tale for the children of flower fairies, I also have spent the last years painting … I am not who you may have thot I was and am who I trust you know I am.”

Who was she? In 1998, the artist known as Susan King discovered her true birth records and was delighted to be reborn as Rachel Berman. Over the years, she lost some vital body parts to surgery, was reduced to a skeleton, and came and went from Victoria, “ … certainly the place for me like none other could have been, to surrender the miseries of my mind, retrieve the innocence of my heart, relish the amazements of a solitude empty of any loneliness, and revel in my dishevelment.”

Her motto was “still travelling,” and between times she always returned here. “In the last year and half more my soul was shrivelled down to the size of a pea,” she wrote in 2006, “and now, having returned to Victoria to live in the certitude of unbounded safety and peace, I seem to be taking on the aspect of an early Victorian underling, pilgrim of an exacting belief on an errand of faith, sort of an imbecile gravity — a thinker evolving a philosophy from the hazy glimpse of a truth. Such are the days, passing one by one into the past, the present descending upon me like a benediction.”

Rachel Berman was an apparition in an overcoat. I never knew her to drive, to make a phone call, eat, schedule an appointment or invite me over. She kept body and soul together solely for the task of painting. In down time, she wrote letters to friends. “I often wonder if I am fit for the long humiliation of life in such a broken world as we have now. A hunchback girl, her hand clasping and unclasping as if her courage were a little bird between her palms trying to escape. But that’s only in moments of weakness. I remember that blue place, that optimism and know there is much more to be marvelous.”

In fact, AIDS made her grateful: “It did give me time to think, not about what the disease has taken away from me but what it has given me, and for which I now am most grateful, for life is most generous,” she wrote in one early morning message. Later, she continued: “I’ve learned that tomorrow is really a breath away, a feather on the breast of God and might be filled with nothing — better feel today — bad sad mad glad happy serene — all of it. And it has allowed me growth in all areas — I have to live today like it is the best day in the world — & I now have the wisdom to know that it is.”

Her bravery, her brilliance and her unique self will continue to inspire her friends. “As I scribble this note the rain and daylight are both ending their business and the luminous dial of my clock & the misty grey in the studio alcove are all that remain to me of the visible world. The world coming to darkness — kindly mother forgiving, concealing. ABBRACCI.”

Rachel Berman died of a heart attack on May 28 at her home in Victoria, age 66.

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