Stepping into Charles Bergen’s studio warms the heart on a wintery day – even the snow falling outside cannot diminish the sense of whimsy that pervades the air. While a bright orange octopus packs a visual wallop just inside the entry, shelves lined with both maquettes and finished pieces capturing aquatic sea-life create a zoological backdrop for our interview. On the other side of the room, large wood planks stand like sentries propped up on the wall joined by large bucket of salvaged flooring, all belying the artist’s interest in wood as a sculptural medium. In between the two areas are tools, found objects waiting for a project and one oddly-charming Great Blue Heron whose head is fashioned from a golf club. This doesn’t feel like your “typical” studio!
Bergen, a member of the Monroe Street Market’s Artswalk community, has a passion for sculpture, but he is no mere sculptor. Rather, he’s an instigator, a nostalgist — the CFO (chief fun organizer) of a corporation of one. His light-hearted approach to art-making is linked to the fact that Bergen has, slightly later in life, made the fine arts his second career. This decision has far-reaching implications both in how he approaches his artistic process and the emotional feelings his sculptures manifest in viewers’ eyes.
Bergen has always had an interest in the fine arts, but as a young man, couldn’t visualize how to turn that into a full-fledged career. Born in Washington, DC, he attended Yale University, noting “Yale wasn’t a place where people made stuff.” His choice to study architecture was apt, as it allowed him to establish a career that enabled him to exercise a degree of artistry within his daily work. His interest in fine art practices was relegated to the level of hobby but has always been percolating just below the surface; his continued part-time study at the Corcoran College of Art and Design and Rockport Maine’s Center for Furniture Craftsmanship bears this out.
As the practice of architecture has changed over time so too, he noted, has the role and relevancy of public art. Public sculpture installations have become more visible in our region, buoyed by a rise in private and public funding for such projects. Bergen saw opportunities to combine his business acumen with this lifelong love of sculpture and in early 2013 began his transition from full-time employment at an architecture firm to a self-employed, full-time fine artist. His first works have primarily been commissioned, site-specific installations but that is changing as his artistic practice quickly evolves.
Today the artist has unleashed his creativity, relishing in a newfound sense of possibility. This is borne out by his unbridled use of materials, where everything from iron to stone to wood is fair game when it comes to creating a new piece. Even found objects can be imbued with new purpose, as an arched, metal floor lamp in the studio’s corner attests. A sense of exploration and playfulness abounds, as the artist delves into his work.
Bergen’s subject matter also bears out this new zest for exploration. Many of his works and installations to date incorporate animal figures, especially animals found in or around bodies of water. When I ask him about the rationale behind this I can almost see his mind’s eye travel back in time. “As a kid, they [sea creatures] seemed so magical – so different than day to day life in DC.” While he’s certainly willing to produce figurative sculpture (which he proposed as a finalist for the Chuck Brown Memorial), he is drawn more to the variety of shapes found in the animal kingdom. Bergen notes he enjoys the challenge of portraying the “essence” of the animal without necessarily being literal with regard to form.
But the artist has other important messages to impart which he achieves through more subtle means. While his animal forms are lighthearted, they often reveal a reverence for ecology and a call to rebalance our relationship with nature. At times this ecological link can be overt, as with his CHEARS Bog Turtle sculpture recently co-commissioned by the City of Greenbelt, MD and the Chesapeake Education, Arts and Research Society. This work, placed in Greenbelt’s Schrom Hills Park, is designed and scaled to engage with children, encouraging them (and perhaps their parents) to examine how they interact with nature. His first-ever solo show, taking place in May of this year at the Hollingsworth Art Gallery at the Patuxent National Wildlife Visitor Center in Laurel, MD continues his exploration of the environment with twelve sculptures representing endangered or at-risk species within the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
Even works without overtly-environmental messages still seek to tweak the way we experience nature. Coppa Lobsta, first exhibited at the North Bennington Outdoor Sculpture Show in North Bennington, Vermont, literally invites children of all ages to climb on board. Created from copper and salvaged wood, the work – one of his largest to date – quietly encourages us to think about the environment while stimulating dynamic play. Closer to home his Capitalsaurus Chasing a Falcarius, part of Capitol Hill’s Alphabet Animal Artwork Project encourages us to think about the history of our environment. Created from water jet cut aluminum, the work hangs from a lamppost at First and F Streets SE and references the ecological history of the immediate area (there is indeed a real Capitalsaurus – its bones were unearthed at Capitol Hill’s Garfield Park on F Street SE in 1998) in a way that both teaches and inspires.
Two years into his new career, Bergen seems to be on a roll. He has a second solo show scheduled later this year at the Anacostia Arts Center as well as several accepted proposals for public work. While to me it seems as if he’s working in two parallel tracks – one being public installations realized via public or private commissions and the other being works conceived for gallery display – he seems to view these as two sides of one coin. Bergen believes that he has a great deal of creative freedom to envision his installations, even when working within the confines of a proposal. On the flip side, he notes that when creating work destined for a gallery, there will still be parameters to work under in consultation with the gallery’s curator. He notes that his years as an architect — consistently creating proposals, building teams and working with a variety of constituents – has provided invaluable on-the-job training no art classroom could teach.
Perhaps therein lies the key to his success– Bergen is simultaneously both an artist and a businessman. While his dreams of becoming artist may have placed on hold temporarily while pursuing a career as an architect, the skills honed from those years now propel his artistic vision.
For more information about Charles Bergen, visit his website here.