Member Highlight: Jody Berns

In our first Member Highlight, we feature artist, longtime member of The Art Center, and former board member Jody Berns. Read on to learn why Berns refers to her membership as an act of “not only giving but getting back.” 

As a child, Jody Berns would sit at a small table in her mother’s basement studio and create works of art. “It just gave me joy to be there,” Berns says, “to create projects, different types of art. I liked to do jewelry or emulate the type of work that she would do, and she would help and teach me along the way.”

Berns’ mother, Maxine Cobert, was a professional artist. Cobert’s early work as a fashion illustrator saw her employed by famed Chicago retailers such as the Mandel Brothers, Marshall Fields, and Chas A. Stevens. Berns herself had retired from a successful career working in technology for large banks when her mother passed away. Looking to reignite her passion for art, Berns enrolled as a student at The Art Center, where her daughter took classes and her mother taught in the 90s.

Berns chose to try her hand at digital photography: “The first class I took was with Rino Liberatore. It was a basic ‘How to Use Your Digital Camera’ class. I also took Iris Allen’s course in Photoshop. And that set me off on my way. [Photography] combined a lot of my love for technology and art and really seemed to resonate with me.”

On her artistic process, Berns says: “I like to start with an image and then use it as a base to build on. So when you look at a lot of my images they’re either composites or I use technology to manipulate the image. So it’s something that I can be creative with—not just what I’m seeing in the world, but something I can work on and make my own.”

Ochre Trench by Jody Berns
“Ochre Trench,” by Jody Berns, from her Fashion Plate series.

Berns combined her photography skills with her own mothers’ artwork to create a series of composite images called Fashion Plate. After her mother passed away, Berns found a treasure trove of drawings in a portfolio folder: “I just started taking them out and scanning them, realizing that it was a way for me to connect with her again.” The result is a collection of stunning images that seem to break down the barrier between past and present, Maxine Cobert’s illustrations come to life in modern settings.

Barriers are a thematic thread we also see drawn through Berns’ piece I Heart Sofia, currently on display in The Art Center’s In View 2022 exhibition. The image is a composite of two photographs—one of Sofia that Berns captured a few years ago combined with a picture of a lighthouse window. In her description of the piece, Berns writes that “during the pandemic, we have had to adapt to distance and barriers from those we love. My piece, I Heart Sofia, is an image showing a longing for what is on the other side of the window. The longing for connection.” 

Berns, whose son and grandchildren live outside the United States, is keenly aware of the impact the Covid-19 Pandemic has had on our ability to connect with the people we love. Her series People on the Other Side, of which I Heart Sofia is a part, grapples with that sense of separation. 

Composite photo of woman gazing out window
“I Heart Sofia,” 2020, Jody Berns

“I’ve had to create a relationship with them through glass,” Berns says of her family living abroad. “A lot of artists use their artwork to express how they’re feeling as sort of an outlet. So in this particular series, that’s what it felt like to me. An outlet for what I was feeling over the past couple of years.”

Yet, however looming feelings of separation may be, Berns still refers to The Art Center as a “gem,” one that is central to Highland Park’s sense of community: “We’re so fortunate to have all of these classes and programs going on. The galleries that Caren [The Art Center curator, Caren Helene Rudman] has been curating are second to none when you look at some of the things that you might go to Downtown Chicago to see. It’s really rare that a community has something as unique and cultural.”

To learn more about Bern’s work, follow her on Instagram and Facebook or visit her website.