Saturday, August 21, 2010

The nearly lost art of the autistic knitter

A couple of weeks ago, we went to the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore for the first time. The museum features "outsider" art—art made, primarily, by people without formal training but with an intense need to create something unique or beautiful or visionary.

There were many things I loved at the museum, especially: the mesmerizing, kaleidoscopic paintings of Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, a baker who made paintings on his kitchen table after-hours (one of his paintings is shown above); the memoir paintings of Russian prince Andrew Romanoff, made entirely on shrinky dinks; and tiny paintings and sculptures selected from Richard McMahon's ongoing mini museum project.

But the exhibit that gave me the most pause was a block of bizarre crocheted pieces in the middle of the floor—a headpiece that looked like it was made for an alien, a striped, rainbow-colored coat, and more neutral-colored hats, all done with incredibly precise needlework. The plaque next to them said they were done by Deborah Berger, an autistic woman who was a knitting prodigy. Berger lived in New Orleans and worked as an artist's model by day, then came home and knitted nonstop for hours. After Berger died, her family threw out all her pieces, but someone from a New Orleans arts council rescued some of them.

Unlike the other artists I've described in this post, I cannot find a picture or even a description of Berger on the Internet. As far as I know, the most visible trace of her existence is on that block of wood in a museum in Baltimore. AVAM doesn't allow photos indoors, so I cannot show you what they look like (which is why Von Bruenchenhein's painting is shown above).

When she sat alone in her apartment, knitting furiously, was this her intention? Is a museum the ultimate destination, the best possible place for her work? Yes, probably, but still there's something a little lonely about it. One wishes that one of her subdued hats would grace the head of a distant cousin or great niece, that her family had wished to keep some part of Aunt Deborah's weird and wonderful art for themselves.

After I wrote this post, AVAM sent a short biography of Berger and photos of her work. See addendum post for September 17, 2010


Anonymous said...

I've wanted to see the American Visionary Art Museum for quite awhile and finally visited with my aunt on August 1st. There were many weird and wonderful things and I was sorry that photos weren't allowed. I saw the knitted items, which reminded me of African art, but more cheery, and the Von Breunchenhein images, which were like Sci-Fi spin art. I think my favorite was the giant orange painting that resembled a reclining nude from far away but up close was filled with a million little scary people that made me think of the second coming. How did the artist DO that??? I wish this kind of art wasn't so often associated with crazy people, and I wish crazy people had more support systems and acceptable ways of being heard in the world.

Kathy D.

Anonymous said...

I knew Deborah Berger for about 10 years. You will have better luck tracing her background by looking through old Usenet newsgroups on Google for the name Moonphalze. She was very talented at her art, but very deeply troubled and disturbed. The woman seemed to have no family support for her mental illness, and was in and out of trouble with the law for severe stalking of people that crossed her path. It is sad that she lived the way she did, without her family making an effort to get her the pysche help she needed. The woman had a 10 year+ history of online stalking, as well as real life stalking, and what a shame it is that she didn't focus her energies even more into her art.

Anonymous said...

I am Deborah's half sister and I must tell you she had a lot of family support. The years you are speaking of were the years she disappeared. We found her in MA and moved her to New Orleans. She was supported by her family both emotionally and monetarily when she allowed us to do so. Do you have any idea who painted her in her younger years. I have a photo of the print and it is wonderful. Still trying to track down her time during her years in MA. Would love to talk to you..We are totally away of her behavior during that time as she told us afterwards. She was surrounded by family when she passed and is in a better person

Anonymous said...

for some reason my typing is awful today.. what I meant to say is; she is in a better place now!

Unseelie Queen said...

To Deborah's sister, I too knew Deborah, in fact I met her while she was living in Salem, Massachusetts. I do know that she'd lived in both Walden and Salem during those years. She did have quite a bit of legal troubles due to harrassment and stalking, especially towards the police and some of the Pagan store owners in town. She does have a really extensive online history. You can probably find her writings by using a search engine to look up the names moonphaise, moonphaLze and the newsgroup alt. religion.wicca. Good luck to you, I was glad to read she'd had family around her at the end.

c said...

Coming across this after being curious about autistic art after a conversation with some one dealing with same condition as I, I have found this to be the incredible power of the Internet leading me here. I am from New Zealand and also an artist but not autistic. This would make a great documovie. It's amazing how people close to her have been able to reveal some of her story here but yet may never have met or heard otherwise.