Alum Spotlight: Robin Bernat, Owner and Curator at {Poem88}

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Robin Bernat. Photo by Loli Lucaciu

I reach the Floataway Building where {Poem88} resides and already feel like I’m in for a treat. Tucked on a remote street in Atlanta, the gallery is surrounded by a beautiful café, some woods with a meandering creek, and a creative open space just steps away. {Poem88} is small, yet welcoming — a corner overflowing with plants gives it a homey vibe, and the white walls and colorful art invite you to detach mentally and day-dream.

Robin Bernat’s warm presence brings a spark to the already bright room. As the owner and curator of the place, she values every detail. She walks me through the room and tells me about Correspondences, {Poem88}’s summer series of short exhibitions, informal talks, and performances (June 14 – August 5). Correspondences addresses the desire to restore a natural balance in opposition to the plethora of perils that threaten our environment, the body politic, our spirits, and our sense of fairness and justice. Each artist presents work that explores our connection to the natural world.

On display is Judy Henson’s “Swift Creek,” a collection of dye-sublimation prints on aluminum and sandbar excavation boxes — they all tell the story of Peachtree Creek, the glistening body of water that passes right behind the gallery’s building.

Robin tells me about her childhood and the beginnings of her interest in the arts. Originally from Monroe, Louisiana, her family was always interested and involved in the visual arts.

“The art museum in the small town where I’m from is my great-grandparents’ house,” she explains. Her aunts were painters and she spent most of her family vacations going to museums to look at art.

Naturally, she went on to study visual art in college. She received her undergraduate degree at the University Of Georgia and continued to study art in graduate programs at Emory (1988-1989) and the then-called Atlanta College of Arts, housed in the Woodruff Arts Center and later incorporated by the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD).

In tandem with her graduate studies, she interned at Nexus Press, which in the ’90s was a publishing component of the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center. There, she learned about artist books as “works of art in themselves, almost as sculptural objects.” This influenced her decision to return to school and pursue a BFA in printmaking from the Atlanta College of Art.

Soon after graduation, she opened an atelier called Circle B Press — while there, her interests shifted from printmaking to videography.

“When I opened my atelier, I did a lot of limited edition prints that had text and images combined, and at some point I became frustrated by the static quality of that. I needed there to be motion. I started making videos and never looked back; it felt perfectly suited.”

In her filmmaking, Robin explores images of classic beauty that confront the transitory in life through memory and change. She shoots with an old Super 8 camera and her phone, collaborating with different cameramen as well as her husband, a musician who often provides the musical score for her short films. The elegiac video Robin created for her cat — a visual tone poem with orange flowers to remind her of the pet’s ginger fur – conveys mood and feeling instead of action. Her husband reworked one of Mozart’s concertos for piano, removing the piano sounds and digitizing the notes from the other instruments. Without the piano, the score sounds mournful and longing, staying true to the elegiac style.

“Everything has to do with my own experiences, everything is autobiographical,” Robin says as she shows me “Wishes,” a 2009 short film she created with cinematographer Blake Williams. “I just have to find a way to combine a very emotional and sensory experience with visuals to try to explain what’s happening. There’s never really dialogue but I employ voiceovers and music.” The images present a Freudian idea of wish fulfillment through Argentine tango, a passion of Robin’s.

She supplemented her work in film with a job at Emory’s Michael C. Carlos Museum as a teaching artist, eventually becoming the manager of Youth and Family Programs, creating educational programming to coincide with both the permanent collection of the museum and traveling exhibitions.

“From young kids to adults, my job ran the gamut of diverse educational programs; it was a very broad brush stroke in education. I had the opportunity to employ a lot of visual artists that I knew in town and in this way create connections between Carlos’ exhibits and the city’s contemporary art.”

These connections deepened years down the road when she opened {Poem88} in 2010.

“A lot of my colleagues from the Atlanta College of Art were looking for gallery representation and so I had this idea — what if we opened this space? These are artists whose work should be seen and it’s not being seen. I wished people in Atlanta realized there’s an enormous wealth of art to be found in the city. Be proud of the artists and art that are made here. I want writers to be writing about these artists and curators to be looking at what these artists are making.”

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A piece in Judy Henson’s collection “Swift Creek”, on display at {Poem 88} until August 5, 2017. Photo by Loli Lucaciu

Most of the artists whose work she exhibits are Atlanta-based. After first showcasing the work of colleagues from the Atlanta College of Art, Robin slowly started incorporating work from artists she encountered at underground arts shows.

{Poem88}’s publishing arm, {Poem88} Editions, allows Robin to explore her early passions: artist books and printmaking. She shows me a few of the books she published, adding that the other tomes in the gallery’s collection are books she orders to complement the exhibitions.

While spreading some {Poem88} Edition prints out on the table for me to see, Robin confesses that she writes poetry – and proceeds to show me Saudade, one of her chapbooks.

“When I started, I was more interested in whether people might like it, whether they would respond to it and think that I have done something worthwhile. In the end, most of these stories that I’m trying to tell and these poems that I’m writing are very universal feelings about love, about mourning the loss of someone, about trying to interpret how people speak and behave and the cloud of misunderstandings that can arise with that. I’m just tapping into some things that many, many people are thinking about. It’s just my little interpretation of those kinds of things. Sometimes things become very clear, the way I look at things sharpens.”

She reads me an untitled poem — it is melancholic and sincere and echoes episodes from my own life. Her art truly is universal, but maintains a charming uniqueness that’s highlighted by her melodic voice as she reads aloud:

Dearest love, I have given up on the idea of my own perfectability.

Won’t you too?

[…] I have seen two raccoons in two days, both dead by the side of the road.

Two of them, in two days. What do you suppose this might mean?

They were dark eyed, as usual, but rigid.

I was this way, you’ve said. Stiff and unyielding, but I am not that way any longer.

Now I’m soft as snow falling into a drift, soft and malleable. 

“I had really seen those two raccoons, and for some reason they prompted this poem. For my own work, I don’t have any constraints, it can be anything. I never make work ever thinking about selling it. It’s a compulsion, really. A feeling. An idea I have that it has to come out.

Creating is an intuitive, subconscious process for Robin. “A lot of my projects come out from something that I wrote and that I want to put a picture to. Sometimes I have this picture in mind and then I have to write something to go with it.” The interplay between the two is how Robin presents her persona to the world.

In many ways, functioning as a curator for {Poem88} is a type of art practice in itself.

“I’m having to bring people together to make this kind of cohesive statement that I want the public to interact with, selecting things that I respond to very personally. Some people have more of a commercial sense, they see a piece and realize that it could be easily bought. I have more of a double criteria – I think it has to be meaningful before thinking that people can buy it. The commercial part is secondary, but not absent. I personally would never buy something that didn’t mean anything. I’m showing things that are meaningful, conceptually rich.”

Being an artist herself, Robin feels like she gained insight into what artists might look for in exhibiting their work, and into the relationship between artist, viewer and gallery.

“Every time I have an encounter with a work, I’m affected by it in good ways or bad ways.”

She underlines the importance of allowing art to touch you rather than trying to analyze it for technical details. “It’s preventing you from having a more visceral experience of things, it’s artificial.  Instead of paying attention to intensity, you pay attention to lighting or positioning.”

What would she advise emerging artists and art students?

“I’d say to look at a lot of art and find opportunities to travel and experience things.”

Artistic expression doesn’t come from a vacuum. “Life experiences add that richness and meaning to the things that you make. Be out there in the thick of it.”

 

By Loli Lucaciu

 

 

 

 

 

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