Ilene Berman



A piece from the Interchange Artists Grant application

This project addresses the need to challenge the embedded narrative of life north of Delmar in order to impact the negative consequences of that narrative for people living there. It will facilitate this change by being a public platform for the insertion of the lived experiences of the Room13Delmar artists into the narrative of our city. These experiences will be shared through the artwork of the Room13Delmar artists who have been creating together for six years. The artists have expressed a desire to share their creations with their community.  The mobile gallery will be a vehicle for sharing their work. This is not just about accessibility to art: the visibility of the creative life north of Delmar is an important piece of challenging the power dynamics in St. Louis. These dynamics are the result of historical exclusionary covenants and systemic inequalities that have created the hyper-segregated situation St. Louis finds itself in today. As Paulo Freire says, "Hence, the radical requirement—both for the individual who discovers himself or herself to be an oppressor and for the oppressed—that the concrete situation which begets oppression must be transformed." The studio has become a site of transformation that positively impacts the social structures in the lives of its artist members. The public nature of our mobile gallery will extend that impact by engaging the artists' own communities in exhibitions and performances in their neighborhood that celebrate both the joys and challenges of life north of Delmar.

Ilene Berman
vulnerability in social practice

Shared, expressed vulnerability is a key component to caring relationships. Socially engaged artists, myself included, often withhold expressions of our own vulnerability. This leads to relationships that perpetuate harmful power structures. It was not easy for me to learn to be vulnerable with my collaborators. However, I have no doubt that this shared vulnerability is at the heart of our ability to challenge the status quo.

These slides are fragments of a talk that my husband, Scott Berman, and I gave at the “Arts and Moral Development” conference in Birmingham, England. Although I take issue with the presumption of art creating moral development, we took part in the conference because we think it is crucial for artists and arts institutions, especially those who want to work with vulnerable populations, to think about the ways in which they hold onto power in those relationships.

Ilene Berman
Studio Artists Respond to CAM

Dear Contemporary Art Museum,

On Wednesday, We, the Room13Delmar artists at Renaissance Senior Living had a conversation about the recent events in the museum and how or if it affects our participation in Open Studios. We don’t know much about the art world but we do know about relationships and how to treat people.

We feel that the museum did not do its job in preparing for the current exhibition. You should have been ready for the conversation and, when it happened, you should not have shut it down.

We want our neighborhood to see our artwork but we do not feel we can partner with the Museum to make that happen.

We want to express our concern and respect for De Nichols. We stand with her and imagine that her feelings are hurt.

In addition, one of our artists wants you to know: I am a 78 year old black proud lady wondering how could this man be so disrespectful to black women. I wonder what places the idea in his head to degrade women further by smearing toothpaste and chocolate over the images? Who gave him permission to display his work? These men need help, they need to fall on their knees and ask God and the public for forgiveness.

We are learning to express ourselves in our artwork. One way to do that is to choose when and where our art is shared. We ask that you withdraw our participation from Open Studios on October 8 and remove Room13Delmar from the event website.

Ms. Lucy Foster

Brenda Lomax

Ms. Willine Taylor

Ms. Delaphine

Ilene Berman


Ilene Berman
Visionary Award Acceptance Speech

I am an artist with what is called a social practice. Trained as a sculptor, I use materials and processes to critique and celebrate social structures. One of the beautiful things about being a sculptor is that you develop a sensitivity to the use of specific materials to tell your stories. Clay can speak of the earth, humility and warmth; textiles speak of humanity, time investment and connections. As my social practice has developed, relationships and time have become key sculptural materials. How else could I create an understanding of a specific social structure than through relationships and committing the time to listening and being a part of the surrounding conversation?

The beauty of entering into conversations about a city as artists is that we aren’t expected to have all the answers. We enter the conversation with our creativity, and with our ability to see things differently. For example my arts practice, NODhouse and room13delmar, were born from walking the entire footprint of Grand Center, from Lindell to Cook Avenue and experiencing the shift at Delmar and Grand. At first I thought the shift was the result of the built environment, the lack of beautiful lighting and flower boxes north of Delmar and how it embodies the history of this divisive street: the investment in one area of the city compared to the neglect in another. But, since spending time there, I’ve learned that what is important is not the absence of lights and flowers but the absence of institutional support for the public sharing of the creativity north of Delmar.

So, the question became, how could I both celebrate that creativity, and critique the absence of its public storytelling?

That is how room13delmar began. The mobile studio functions as both a celebration of the creativity that already exists north of Delmar, as well as a critique of the absence of that creativity in the offerings of the Arts District. Over the last year and a half, groups of us in the four blocks north of Delmar (some of whom are here tonight) have been developing relationships of creative trust. And with that trust, the expectation of being seen and heard.

Teacher and philosopher Paulo Friere said, “If I am not in the world simply to adapt to it, but rather transform it, and if it is not possible to change the world without a certain dream or vision for it, I must make use of every possibility there is, not only to speak about my utopia, but also to engage in practices consistent with it.” My utopia is a place where each person expects that his or her life matters; a city that honestly critiques itself, and whose institutions celebrate the lived experiences of all of its citizens. We can do much better here in the Arts District. We can make a permanent home for the Black Repertory Theatre. We can fill opening nights at Portfolio Gallery and purchase artists’ work there, and, we can include, a First Night Stage, north of Delmar.

Lives are enriched by the work of artists. I know that each of the visionary women honored here tonight can tell you of a time that her life was impacted by experiencing the work of a female artist. Grand Center will fulfill its mission when it ensures that its Black neighbors experience their stories being expressed by Black artists throughout the Arts District. We can create such a reality together. We need only a shared vision and a commitment to using ‘every possibility there is not only to speak about (our) utopia, but also to actively engage in practices consistent with it.’

Ilene Berman
I'll Take 17 exhibition

When speaking with a St. Louis Public School teacher about class size, Ilene Berman mentioned the National Education Association’s statistic of 15 students as the optimum class size for learning. To this, the teacher immediately responded, “I’ll Take 17”. We know students learn best through meaningful, intimate relationships with their instructors. For families with the means to seek alternatives to the public school system, the most frequently asked question is: “What is your average class size?”, underscoring the fact that small classes are a commonly-acknowledged and top-prioritized educational asset. And yet, in the St. Louis Public School System, additional classrooms are allotted only after class size exceeds 30 students. Furthermore, administrators in the system publicly cite class-size reduction as an unaffordable expense, while teachers cite overwhelming class size as a reason not to continue teaching. During the fifteen years Berman was an artist-in-residence in the St. Louis Public School System, the district invested in several multimillion-dollar learning programs – including No Child Left Behind and the Common Core – none of which addressed class size. How can any educational initiative succeed when, at the most basic level, students are unable to simply be heard or seen? “I’ll Take 17” examines the critical importance of this very issue while also questioning art’s capacity to adequately address such pragmatic concerns. Using participatory elements — such as mural-scaled chalkboards on which the public can write, an immersive audio installation that simulates the aural assault of an over-populated classroom, and palpable textures such as felt-covered school desks – Berman attempts to physically position the viewer within the considered conflict. Through this subtle sensory entreaty, perhaps active educational change can be inspired and art’s capacity for public reform expanded.

—Jessica Baran, fort gondo compound for the arts

Ilene Berman
documenting without faces

In his new book, What We Made, Tom Finkerpearl says, “One of my pet peeves…. is that I don’t like to look at photographs of public art that don’t include the audience.” (pg 72). When I first read that sentence I was in complete agreement but something happened yesterday with Room13Delmar that made me reconsider the images of people in documentation.

Two young men were making holiday cards for their children and partners while Room13Delmar was on the sidewalk of Grand Boulevard, north of Delmar. One of them asked for some help with spelling and the other told me he had never used a glue stick before. Their cards and their faces were so beautiful, I would have loved to have had a photo of them. However, it was so clear that what was important about the moment was being present, sharing the experience with them. If I were to take out my camera and photograph them, we would no longer be in the moment together, there would all of a sudden be a ‘them’ and a ‘me’.

I didn’t take a picture the entire time they were with me at Room13Delmar, the experience, in public, north of Delmar, is exactly what Room13Delmar is about. Some would tell me that that type of documentation is exactly what I need to be able to tell the story of Room13Delmar. However, the story of Room13Delmar is only as beautiful as the moments that make up Room13Delmar; these moments have to be the focus at all times.

For today, I will rely on words to tell the story and, an image of Room13Delmar quietly in situ.

Ilene Berman
first post

In the Spring of 2010 a public art sculpture, NODhouse,

was planned to be installed on an empty lot in the city of St. Louis, north of Delmar Avenue. Speaking to St. Louis’ historical divide between investment and neglect, visibility and invisibility and black and white, NODhouse is an attempt at breaking down the experiential wall of one part of one city. It is one artist’s way of drawing attention to the ease with which those of us with privilege are able to move back and forth across this boundary while leaving some of our fellow citizens behind. By choosing to place my own work north of Delmar Avenue on Grand Boulevard, I am challenging the stead-fastness of this divide and its consequences for those living both north and south of it. Two weeks before the installation was to begin, the alderwoman pulled her support for the project.

Instead, in late Fall 2010, I installed embroidered NODhouse manifesto pledges in businesses and a school facing Grand Boulevard north of Delmar. Each pledge was embroidered with gold floss onto a linen napkin, framed and accompanied by an artist statement and a printed copy of the entire manifesto. The installation embodies what I came to identify as the three details of the work on which I would not compromise: first, the site of the installation is the Grand Center Arts District, more specifically the blocks of Grand Boulevard north of Delmar Avenue; second, the placement of my own artwork north of Delmar expresses my commitment to challenging the experiential wall of Delmar Avenue; and, third, the work itself, NODhouse, is realized through the respectful building of relationships.

What I could not have known before entering into the process of creating this exhibition was the beauty of the responses I would receive from the people I asked to partner with me through their granting permission for the hanging of a framed manifesto pledge. It was with their cooperation that the community around NODhouse was formalized and the affirmation of the belief that art can be used to change the world was given. This website is a record of the people, ideas and experiences that are NODhouse so far. NODhouse continues to grow.

Ilene Berman
NODhouse Manifesto (2009)

Through this manifesto, I pledge

  • to reject as inevitable the reality of long-standing divides between black and white citizens in my city,

  • to reject as inevitable the reality of long-standing divides between rich and poor citizens in my city,

  • to use the unique opportunities created through the arts to challenge the barrier separating the areas to the north and south of Delmar Avenue,

  • to ask my fellow artists what their plans are for expanding the Grand Avenue Arts District north of Delmar,

  • to promote the expansion of the arts district across Delmar Avenue,

  • to install my art north of Delmar Avenue,

  • to invite all of St. Louis to experience art north of Delmar Avenue,

  • to share the process of coming together in dialogue and relationship to create positive change in my city,

  • to act on my belief that art can (and should) change the world and, lastly,

  • to proudly own the idealism expressed through this manifesto.

Ilene Berman