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A Forgotten History of the Finest Etcher in America

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Founded in 1980, Printworks Gallery in River North features some of Chicago’s most celebrated artists and SAIC alumni. Their first ever exhibition, back when they were still located on Michigan Avenue and Ontario, was a solo show of SAIC alumna Vera Berdich’s prints, entitled Visions and Observations.

“All of the Imagists were there,” remembers Printworks co-director Bob Hiebert of the exhibition’s opening night. Art critic Harry Bouras turned Vera Berdich’s opening night into a half-hour radio broadcast for his show “Art and Artists” on WFMT radio. Hiebert recalls that at one point, Bouras even gave Berdich the title of “finest etcher in America.” If Vera Berdich was considered the finest etcher in America, then why do so few SAIC students today know who she is?

Printworks co-directors Bob Hiebert and Sidney Block suggest that her medium, etching, may have played a role in her lack of recognition as a modern American artist. Audrey Niffenegger, SAIC alumna and author of the best selling “The Time Traveller’s Wife,” says, “She was kind of a loner in a way, and went off on her own path. Printmaking is not necessarily a mainstream form of modern art.”

“I think like a lot of people, she’s sort of been forgotten,” says Mark Pascale, curator of the Prints and Drawings Collection for the Art Institute of Chicago. “She’s forgotten in part because the current people who are in the [printmaking] department weren’t happy about her towards the end of her career.”

Ironically enough, Pascale was hired with the money the Museum had available after Berdich retired. Though he never met the artist, he is in charge of managing the acquisitions fund that Berdich established at the Museum after donating nearly all of what she considered her most important prints to the Prints and Drawings Collection. She even auctioned off her house to create scholarships for the School. For someone who gave so much to both the Museum and the School, Berdich is rarely acknowledged by either institution.

Berdich grew up in the rural Chicago suburb of Riverside Lawn, near the Des Plaines River. During the Great Depression, she attended J. Sterling Morton High School in Cicero, where she was encouraged by her instructors to study at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “It was at this time that my feeling for fantasy began to manifest itself; it was this element in my work that prompted [the school’s] attention,” Berdich later wrote in her artist’s statement. She also noted that music and nature often informed her prints, some of which actually referred to musical compositions.

After saving up enough money from babysitting and other odd jobs, Berdich enrolled in evening classes at SAIC a year after graduating high school. In her artist’s statement, Berdich recalls her frequent visits to the Art Institute galleries as “the most exciting and inspiring experience” for a young artist. At the age of 26, Berdich left home and moved to the city to join the Illinois Art Project, where she became interested in printmaking. She later wrote about the experience: “It was while I was with the project that I learned to etch and almost immediately I sensed its possibilities and knew that it was to be my favorite medium.”

Berdich worked for the American Steel Company during World War II and returned to SAIC after the war ended. She graduated in 1946. The following year, Berdich bought her own presses and trays and borrowed tables, chairs, and cabinets from other departments to start etching courses at SAIC and introduce her favorite medium to thousands of students over the course of her 35 years of teaching. Berdich’s students include Jim Nutt, Phil Hansen, and emeritus from the painting department and current working artist John Miller. “Judging by the student work that we kept for the collection, I think she was a very good teacher, but she had very set ways,” says Mark Pascale.

“She taught a lot of people, but didn’t like to be copied. She wanted students to have their own work and develop their own styles,” says Audrey Niffenegger of Berdich’s teaching practices.

Perhaps Berdich was a little too private about her own work. Pascale remembers that when she was asked to retire from teaching, Berdich insisted the Dean of the School was sexist, although problems may have stemmed from her insistence on locking the printmaking room doors and becoming increasingly secretive about her work.

“She spent all of her time pretty much to herself, and not reaching out. She didn’t work too hard at marketing her work,” says Pascale, who credits Berdich as a hard-working artist and teacher who was of a generation that felt that curators and others would come to her and solicit her work. “If you want to be in the art world, you’ve got to put yourself in the art world and she didn’t,” Pascale adds.

One of the few people whom Berdich did spend a lot of time with was Harold Joachim, who worked as curator of the Prints and Drawings Collection until his death in the early ‘80s. The Prints and Drawings Collection at the Art Institute currently owns more of Berdich’s work than anyone else. Despite lacking marketing skills, Berdich’s work can also be seen at the Library of Congress, Museum of Modern Art, Brooklyn Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum, and Bibliotheque Nationale. The Chicago Cultural Center exhibited a retrospective of her work in 1995.

Berdich died at the age of 88 in October of 2003. The School of the Art Institute does not celebrate the great contributions that Vera Berdich made at a time when the idea of studying printmaking as a major was first becoming accepted, but Berdich’s free spirit and eccentric practices will always be remembered by the students, faculty, artists, and curators who were fortunate enough to know and work with her, through the best and worst of times.

Niffenegger, who considers Berdich one of her own personal heroes, will never forget her only interaction with Berdich, who approached the young artist at one of her exhibitions with only three words: “Copper or zinc?”

Berdich was a “pioneer of the transferring process,” says Block. “She would make ten prints, and each one would be slightly different,” Hiebert says, explaining her process of continuously adding colors in different areas of the plate before each print. Though other galleries got annoyed with Berdich’s varying prints, Printworks Gallery prides itself on showing the hand of the artist. “Each of these pieces are so unique,” Block says of her prints. “I like narrative, dark undertones, dark imagery.” Their current exhibition, Twilight Shadows, is a selection of some of Berdich’s most intricate and mystical prints.

Twilight Shadows runs until July 5 at Printworks Gallery.

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