Artists Learn-and-Share: An Interview with jen berger

How the Public Art Learning Fund strengthens public art-making practices

photo by Joe Adler

In this "Artists Learn-and-Share" blog series, we take a moment to reconnect with some of our Public Art Learning Fund (PALF) grantees. We invite you to hear how their grants have strengthened their public art-making practices over the grant period. We hope this can inspire the range and depth of possibilities of what we hope the PALF opportunity can offer New England based public artists in their ever-evolving practices as creative stewards of more just and thriving public culture.

Artist jen berger has used performance, visual arts, painting, printmaking, and participatory installations to engage in social issues from reproductive rights and ecological issues to racial justice and economic equality. She invested in mentorship and research as her Public Art Learning Fund professional development opportunity. 

Kamaria Carrington (KC): Thank you for being with me and digging deeper into the Public Art Learning Fund opportunity that you pursued. Can you ground us in where you are in your practice? What was the professional development opportunity that you accessed with the PALF grant, and what has this opportunity meant to your practice as a public artist? 

jen berger (jb): Those are great questions. The opportunity I pursued was to work with my old advisor from grad school at Goddard College, JuPong Lin. I worked with her to help me start putting together a research project to think about what pieces of public art to research and how to start deepening that learning about where grief, public art, and care intersect. I haven't written about my work in a long time, so I started doing the research and writing again. I wrote more than I expected, and realized that I'm only an eighth of the way into the stack of books and other resources that I want to [read] before I finish it. I actually made it way more complicated. But it worked out really great. I am really interested in the ideas, the intersections of care and grief and public art in public space, and I got very much more deeply into thinking about them during the pandemic. When I was home, I was going to webinars and researching things, and I started to see the connections. I wanted to know more about that. And it was something I had already been thinking about on one level. But this kind of opened up different and new frameworks for me to consider.  

KC: What has this opportunity meant for your practice? 

jb: I think that I unintentionally started pulling things together that I was already doing. Time to sit, research, and reflect with my old advisor helped me have a deeper understanding of what I was doing in my practice, and touch down into my goals that have been to literally grow! I got to sit with my work and see how I create and how my work has gotten bigger and bigger. I can see it! I'm getting more ideas as I am researching how other people have done that. This time has helped me both contextualize and contain my practice in a comprehensive way, while also given it a chance to grow. 

Brown wooden squares hang from a pole, on the side of a building with red shingles.
photo by Joe Adler

KC: What was something surprising that you learned about yourself, your practice, and public art making through accessing this learning opportunity with your mentor?

jb: How much I love research, and how hard it is for me to let myself do it because it's such a solitary practice of reading and writing. But I do have a friend who I get together with once a month and have a writing session with that has been good for me. I learned more about how I learn, how I think and I started to get a deeper understanding of my own creative process!

KC: What is it like to have the resource of a mentor?

jb: It was amazing to reconnect with her and experience that she remembered things about me that I had not remembered about myself. It was great to be in relationship with someone who has a lot more experience than I do. We think similarly yet don't agree on everything, and to engage in those dialogues and expand thinking has really stimulated my practice in a humbling way. Having a shared experience about how we want to be in the world is incredibly special.

KC: it sounds like an experience to really connect and invest in a relationship that is really meaningful to your work and your artistic development.

jb: Yes!

KC: What did it mean for you to be able to reciprocate by paying your mentor for that time, instead of the old “let me pick your brain” scenario?

jb: When I started making art the myth of the starving artist was really ingrained in me. As I have grown older my opinion has shifted against that myth—I believe very strongly about that—artists are workers and we culturally need to shift the whole mentality of our society about the role of artists. And I wouldn't have been able to pay her out of my own pocket. I wouldn't have engaged the opportunity and asked her to donate her time if I didn’t have the resources.

KC: So, it sounds like accessing the PALF grant was also an opportunity to practice a way of being in the world that you're committed to.

jb: Absolutely, and I wouldn't have been able to do it without the grant.

KC: Would you recommend other artists access this fund for mentorship as a professional development opportunity?

jb,:Yes! I think mentorship is so desperately needed in so many areas. And I think it can be hard to ask for. It also can be hard to build and sustain those relationships. I think it's really gendered in a lot of ways too. There can be so many levels of discomfort, of asking for help, paying, not paying and having that structure. But it is so transformative to give yourself and someone else the opportunity to try it out. And have the experience of successfully asking for help is so generative. And I want to say that mentorship is usually a mutually reciprocal opportunity. JuPong was excited to work with me again because the learning goes both ways when we exchange ideas. All of that being said, I would definitely recommend a mentorship professional development opportunity—it can be huge!

KC: What has this opportunity open up for you? 

jb: I think in the research I was able to hone in on some of the ideas that are important to me. They've become a focus area to me and I discovered this is actually my practice. Before this chance to pause and research, the ideas were kind of all over the place. Even just the other day I realized a project that I had been slowly working was actually part of this larger overarching theme. And then all the work that I've done over the last four years also fits into this. And now I’m realizing that this is what I'm going to be focusing my work on with my research and my creative work. And also, I have been trying to figure out a way to keep a studio practice that is a part of how I spend my days, not just waiting to do a big installation. 

KC: It sounds like this moment allowed you to do some gathering, and also time to store some momentum to keep moving things forward.

jb: Yeah, I mean, this definitely pushed my creative work and practice forward. And with greater clarity and language for my work, a few months ago I had the opportunity to share my thoughts more publicly for the first time and get some feedback. I'm really developing the framework of care around grief and public art.

KC: Any other advice for applicants?

jb: Yes! I really appreciate how the PALF opportunity is to self-determine your own professional development. The possibilities are wide and vast. That can be scary at first, but I really encourage public artists interested in PALF to reflect on what opportunities are possible and what learning is ripe at this moment in time. If the timing is right, PALF could really level up your practice and your work as a public artist grounded in spatial justice.

KC: Can you share some of the resources from your research that helped you develop these frameworks?

jb: Sure!

jen berger’s Resource List


Art Works

VT based Collective

Artists Learn-and-Share Series

For more "Artists Learn-and-Share," read our interview with Chris Battaglia (ME), Yara Liceaga-Rojas (MA), Shey Rivera Ríos (RI) and Hanna Satterlee (VT).

jen berger

jen has shoulder length, wavy blonde hair and she smiles with her arms wide.

jen berger has been exploring the intersections of art and social justice since 2003. She has worked as a community organizer, an event producer, an educator, a teaching artist, a professor. In her own studio practice, she has used performance, visual arts, painting, printmaking, and participatory installations to engage in social issues from reproductive rights, and ecological issues to racial justice and economic equality. She began her business, At the Root, LLC, in 2019 to further her work in the community. Since 2020, jen has been intentionally working in bigger and more public spaces and exploring the intersections of public art and care.


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