Carol Chase Bjerke – A Remembrance
Presented by Theresa Abel
September 23, 2023 at Abel Contemporary Gallery, Stoughton, WI
I would like to welcome everyone and thank you for joining us to celebrate and experience the artwork of Carol Chase Bjerke. Carol’s art practice and life were so entwined that discussing her art honors her life. Thus, it is a great privilege to host this retrospective and share it with an audience comprised of friends, colleagues, collectors, and fans of Carols art.
Carol Chase Bjerke has played a significant role in the arts in the greater Madison area for decades. Abel Contemporary began working with Carol over a decade ago and during that time her artwork has become synonymous with the gallery and to the staff she felt like family.
Carol left us on October 11, 2022, so this exhibit marks a year without her. Early last year Carol and her husband Lee visited me in the gallery. Carol had an idea for a show in no.5 she wanted to propose. Having worked with Carol on installations in the past I knew I would approve wholeheartedly of the idea even before hearing any details. That proposal consisting of one piece, called There’s a Story Here: Catalog for an Imaginary Retrospective Exhibition, is what you are experiencing here. Carol knew she was dying and chose to leave us this wonderful gift.
These are Carols words from the proposal- “I envision the kit placed on a large table in the center of the No. 5 room, with four chairs so viewers can sit and take their time paging through the binders. It would be tempting to also hang a few pieces of actual art on surrounding walls, but I see this as a distraction from the incentive to spend more time assimilating the story from the Catalog.” At the time I thought I would have more time to discuss the installation with her and mentioned that I wanted to follow her instructions as she was masterful at putting together an installation. Carol insisted that she trusted us to make wise decisions and I hope she would approve. As you can see here, we did not exactly follow Carols suggestion pertaining to no art on the walls. We felt including actual pieces would be meaningful to the viewers, especially people who visit the gallery and may be experiencing Carols work for the first time. Our compromise was a room within a room. So please visit us at the gallery as many times as you like during this exhibit, spending time at the table looking at the books Carol so generously left us.
We began working with Carol nearly a decade ago when she proposed an installation in our previous alternative gallery space, the cooler in our previous gallery in Paoli, WI. The show, “Hidden Agenda”, was an intellectual and emotional investigation, large scale multi-faceted art project about living with an ostomy after treatment for colorectal cancer. That doesn’t sound like the recipe for an aesthetically beautiful show but believe me it was. In one of my final conversations with Carol, I told her she could teach a master class in art installation. She had a way of composing a space full of beauty and intrigue. Any message she was focused on was subtly communicated through poetic images. We live in a time when many artists are making work about their personal struggles, their identity, and politics. It can be challenging to successfully communicate these ideas without being overly didactic, losing sight of creating a meaningful aesthetic experience. Carol could create work that was very personal even about subjects that should be heavy, and magically make the viewer feel included in what could be very private thoughts and leave the show feeling elevated. And the final product was always aesthetically beautiful.
“Hidden Agenda” was loved by the staff and the public and Carol was such a joy to work with that a few years later we hosted another installation titled ”Touch/Stones”. After many years of work focusing on her Art and Healing projects, Carol was back in her black and white darkroom doing hands-on work with light sensitive materials and drawing. Carols words: “One could say it was only natural for me to gravitate to this subject, because if you look at the piece called “Monument”, this jar is one of the many containers of pebbles we found when we cleaned out my mother’s apartment. The stones she picked up on her daily walks. She did this until she was 93 years old, and she had been an avid hiker since she was very young.”
If stones were always a part of Carols life it seems art was as well. In her retrospective catalogue there is a reproduction of a drawing she did in a Christmas letter to Santa from 1953 asking for a pair of girl scout pajamas and a girl scout camera. The drawing is charming and thankfully she got the camera.
Carols final feature show at Abel Contemporary was in 2021 and focused on her work inspired by the Hunger Mountain Story by David Hinton. Here is a summary of that narrative ” Summit-Gate left her war-ravaged village to establish her mountainside home. In addition to her house, she built a poetry shelter in an adjacent open field. As the years passed her poetry evolved from written works to collections of leaves that she stored in her library. In the autumn of each year, she gathered her special leaves and placed them in the boxes and shelves that had previously held her book scrolls. Then every winter when the wind and snows came, she released her leaves to blow across the landscape, tracing and marking their way, and becoming her new kind of poetry. I call them leaf poems. Poetry that speaks of being at one with the landscape. And eventually she did just follow one off and didn’t return. “
Carols artwork is left for us, like the leaves, released to the world, becoming more than even the artist intended.
I will leave you with Carols most recent artist statement -
Creativity is a process, and an opportunity for befriending the unknown.
Life is a process, and an opportunity for befriending death.
Each of us is part of a vast continuum, and there is a ripple effect.
Carol Chase Bjerke - In Memoriam
Presented by Ann Orlowski
September 23, 2023 at Abel Contemporary Gallery, Stoughton, WI
I have been fortunate to work closely with many artists in my role here at the gallery. Daily, my conversations with this interwoven network of creative people reveal insight into how they approach their practice, and live their lives. Working professionally with Carol over the years it was evident to me that her life and her art were fully intertwined. Every part of her was put into the creative process which resulted in a body of work that is rich and varied, while maintaining a cohesiveness that is singularly Carol. Her commitment to her practice became even more evident to me as I spent time pouring over her retrospective, which she fortuitously composed for us, and meeting with her partner Lee in the studio in preparation for this show. Notes, records, and the immense collection of artworks amassed from a lifelong passion, were all evidence of this rich life lived as an artist.
Carol and I became acquainted in 2013 when she was looking for a place to show her piece “Hidden Agenda”. The galley was still in Paoli, and we had been showing works in “the Cooler” which was in fact the old cooler from when the building was a working creamery. That space, like the no. 5 space we are gathered in today, was a place where we could show installations, experimental pieces, and more challenging works. Hidden Agenda was a body of work that dealt very directly with colon cancer and living a life with an ostomy, which often was not a subject that was immediately embraced. The work from this show is deeply personal, but as Carol discovered, the message is also universal. The previous year my beloved grandmother had passed away, and in the last years of her life she too lived with an ostomy. I was one of a very select few people she trusted to help her care for this very intimate and personal medical need. When Carol approached us about her exhibition I was immediately receptive. I was drawn to the care she placed on the topic, but also the levity she brought to a subject that most people either don’t know about or don’t want to talk about.
After getting to know Carol during the time we presented “Hidden Agenda” I was able to see the true depth of her work. She continued to show with us at the gallery and she followed up her first Cooler show with another, TOUCH/STONES, where she again filled the space with a vast amount of work: photographs, limnographs, hand made objects. It was an almost overwhelming amount. I say almost, because Carol was so organized and the show so well planned, that she made it all look easy. She presented a beautiful collection of pieces which contemplate how something as simple as a stone can mark the connections we make with each other over both distance and time.
Working with Carol for almost a decade has been a delight. She was always up for a challenge when we presented her with a show theme. Her work was conceptually driven, aesthetically considered, well crafted, and presented beautifully. Not only was she a joy to work with professionally, she has also been an inspiration to me in my own art practice. I have a small piece of her’s in my collection, a piece called “Orical.” This image is the shadow of an outstretched hand, reaching for the light. I had a chance to talk with Carol via email about the inspiration and fortuitous nature of creating this image. She generated the image during a trip to Ireland. Taken at the Clochan na Carraige, which are ancient stone huts found on the island of Inishmore.
She described to me the ephemeral experience of finding an unexpectedly bright spot of light inside one of these dark huts. Here are her words:
Then suddenly I was aware of a small bright spot on the wall in front of me. Mesmerized, I watched as it inched its way over the stones. Until finally I turned around to see the small opening between stones on the opposite wall where the late afternoon sun was entering and casting its ray across the room. Only then did it occur to me that this exquisite light show, or Oracle, as I had decided to call it, was a fleeting occurrence. If I was going to photograph it, I would have to do so in the next few minutes before it disappeared. I pulled out my camera and snapped a couple of frames, but quickly realized they fell short of recording what for me was an extraordinary experience of being here…now. I needed to do more. I reached out my hand to place it on the wall. But before it landed, I could see its shadow there. Perfect. Except . . . It was my left hand, and I could see that the shape of my right hand would relate better to the orientation of the spot of light. Okay, but my right hand was busy with the shutter release, it’s how the camera is designed. Clearly some contortion was called for. And soon. I managed to prop the camera against my face with my right shoulder in such a way that I could both see through the viewfinder and also free that hand to find its position within the ray of light, all the while wrapping my left hand around to where I could use its fingers to brace the camera while barely reaching with my thumb to press the shutter release. Once. Twice. Three tries. Four. And it was gone. And this was on film, so only later after I was home and could process it did I know for sure that the very first one worked. The only one that did.
Every morning when I wake up I am greeted by this piece, Oracle. Like an Oracle this image of the shadow of the artist’s hand conveys a message that is open for interpretation. For me, I think of Carol’s intention when creating the piece, to capture a brief moment of her life and share it with others. I contemplate the lengths she went through to take this seemingly simple image, and the hand that is behind all the things we create in our own lives. With her in mind, I strive to imbue my life and work with the thoughtful care and observation of an artist's eye.
Carol managed to create this deep artistic reservoir for us all to draw from. All of this while raising children, and fostering deep and lasting relationships with family and friends, which is evident here today. She did this all and never lost sight of her artistic practice, something I strive for in my own life and art.