When they see her pedaling her odd-looking tricycle north of Delmar Boulevard, people like to guess what Ilene Berman keeps in the big storage compartment between its front wheels.
A change of clothes? Tools? Ice cream?
Berman’s portable art studio is full of neatly organized supplies, everything from crayons and papers to cloth and thread to folders that hold works in progress. And if a work surface is needed, no problem. The storage container also holds a built-in collapsible steel work table.
“I do not go fast on this thing,” she said. “It is not built for speed. But it’s efficient, and it’s easier to push than to pull.”
The rolling studio isn’t for her personal use. The peripatetic artist takes it to children’s programs, to a center for older adults, to a veterans’ hospital. Sometimes she stops it in front of a friendly business to create art with curious passers-by who want to try their own hands at making something. The work table is decorated with raised letters so that even people who say they “can’t do” art can make a rubbing; it’s one way to start.
Berman adapted the English cycle with her friend, Nick Lang, chief preparator at Laumeier Sculpture Park. Local organizations Regional Arts Commission, Critical Mass, Urban Strategies and Justine Petersen funded the purchase and construction of the trike in exchange for Berman’s promise that she would use it in the north of Delmar area. The cycle’s steel frame is sturdy; so is the compartment she made of industrial felt, one of her favorite materials. “If I ever give you a gift,” she said, “it will be industrial felt.”
She understands why the cycle intrigues people. “It’s the equivalent of a Mary Poppins bag,” she said with a laugh. “Everything pops out!
“And people understand it as an image: Something magical is happening north of Delmar.”
Berman gave the area an acronym: “NOD.” She thinks lots of magical, artistic things can happen there, if they are nurtured.
She’s particularly concerned with the area on and off Grand Boulevard. Technically, that’s part of the Grand Center Arts District. But street festivals generally stop at Delmar. So do plants and flowers, galleries, theaters, restaurants and most other signs of artistic life. “In socially committed art, people talk about psycho-geography,” she said. “The psycho-geography of the arts district ends at Delmar.
“But there is life here. There’s no reason (for the area) not to be emerging artistically.”
That “invisible wall” troubled Berman years ago. When she was working on her master’s of fine arts at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, she wrote her “NOD manifesto,” a call for inclusion in artistic and other endeavors.
An artist who currently teaches social practice in the arts at St. Louis University, Berman has worked in many media over the years. Her most familiar piece is probably the stony, circular sculpture outside Central Reform Congregation, at Kingshighway and Waterman Boulevard. She once embroidered a series of linen napkins with phrases from her manifesto, then gave them to businesses in the area to hang. (After more than three years, they’re still on display.) She has also envisioned such big projects, as a sculpture park set up for conversations.
But that requires a lot of coordination among agencies, governmental and otherwise. What can one artist do?
More than you think, she said — if you have wheels.
Berman first saw tricycles like hers in 2011, when she and her family moved to Bristol, England, for a year. Her husband, Scott Berman, who teaches philosophy at SLU, was doing research there. (Originally from Baltimore, the couple live in the DeMun area and have two children: Noah, now in graduate school at the London Film Institute, and Gili, about to start college at SLU’s campus in Madrid.) In England, ice cream vendors ride them.
Bristol was also where she learned about Room 13 International, an arts project with worldwide outposts. The name comes from a Scottish grammar school that had canceled its art classes. But the children, who missed it, raised money to hire an artist to teach them, and the school let them use Room 13. Today, Room 13 brings artists in residence to schools and communities around the world — including one in Bristol.
Berman, who volunteered with the project, found that “the kids felt real ownership (of their work). Adults like me were simply partnering with them. And the quality of their work was amazing.” Working on art not only helps each artist to express himself or herself, she concluded: It also builds a community among artists who work together and between artists and their neighbors.
Now Berman and her art trike — which is officially designated Room13Delmar by the international project — are continuing the Bristol spirit in St. Louis.
The trike travels outside, but can go inside buildings if it needs to. Berman likes that. “There’s something about not having real estate that keeps this about the art and about the relationships,” she said. “It’s not about a place.” Like the Room 13 idea, it adapts to its locale.