Ellen Berman is an artist of great courage and an even greater capacity for love. Her daughter, Sarah, was born in the early 1970’s with severe brain damage and a seizure disorder. Since Sarah would never be able to live what we would call a “normal” life and since she would die at age 17, Ellen was no stranger to grief and mourning. My wife and I had the honor last evening of hosting her presentation of slides of her paintings reflecting her feelings for her daughter. The audience was about two dozen psychologist-types interested in the Arts Committee of the DSPP (Dallas Society for Psychoanalytic Psychology). Ellen is clearly a good painter, as evidenced by her shows at the Conduit Galleries in Dallas, owned and directed by Nancy Whitenack, whose attendance made the evening all the more special. More personally, I was moved by the enormity of a mother’s love for her child. These sensitive paintings reflected the mood of a caring mother working through years of anguish and wrenching emotions, often without expressing any words. So another point of appreciation for me was seeing how painting allows (causes) one to simply be quiet and pay attention, rare in our modern-day culture characterized by running and doing. Ellen said that whether you are doing the painting or whether you are looking at it you have to be quiet and sensitize yourself to the piece. One of the personal benefits of painting for Ellen was that, “While people would stare, I really wanted them to look, but I wanted them to look on my terms.” What a sensitive use of the medium of paint.
I also learned something new about still life painting. Salomon Grimberg, a Dallas psychiatrist and author of a biographical book on Mexican artist, Frida Kahlo, explained to me that as people are reminded of the temporality of life, they want to hold on to the day-to-day things they love. So still life and portraits tend to address this issue of the pain. I have since reflected on the anguish expressed in Isaiah in the context of comfort:
“All flesh is grass, and all its loveliness is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass (40:6-7).
Nothing we have on earth lasts forever, but we can savor the experiences that move us at the deepest level and that enrich our lives. And we can share. Thanks, Ellen.