Westbeth artist reveals a remarkable life

By Rachel Evans

Lifetime devoted to the arts, undoing prejudice and reporting world atrocities

A photographic portrait of Pablo Picasso hangs on one side while a series of anti-war paintings and collages fill the opposite corner of the Westbeth Gallery. Dizzying water-colored pieces inspired by such things as a sand storm to simple lead-pencil sketches of Isabella Rossalini’s children, overwhelm the eye. It is hard to imagine that all of the approximately 120 pieces and a slide show are from one woman, Beryl Bernay.

An old boom box is softly playing a tape that Bernay picked out of Bali dance music. Every couple of minutes she closes her eyes and sways a little, remarking that she finds the music peaceful and beautiful.

Bernay’s exhibit is titled “World Untied,” not be confused with “World United,” she said. It is a collection of more than 50 years of work as a painter, photojournalist, reporter, actress and writer of an award winning 1950’s international children’s television show.

“It is connect-the-dots,” Bernay said. “Everything in here leads from one thing I did in my life to another.”

Debi Frame, an artist from the Upper West Side, was passing by and was drawn in by the title. Once inside, she couldn’t believe that all of the pieces were from one person.

“This is all handled masterfully,” she said as she browsed the extensive collection. “There are so many different cultures represented here.”

The variety of pieces in her collection are a timeline of Bernay’s life. Of her many hats, it is painting that has provided her with stability, she said.

“I have always been a painter,” she said. “Throughout everything I could return to painting to truly express my feelings.”

In addition to the paintings, there are walls upon walls of black and white and color photographs, which appeared in such magazines as Time, Parade and the New York Times.

There are also photographs that didn’t make it to any magazines. They are a testimony to her determination of will and passion for telling the truth and continue to strike a chord with Bernay.

These are behind-the-scenes photographs of the set of her award-winning children’s TV series, “All Join Hands’” produced by the United Nations Children’s Fund. Bernay was both writer and on-air host. In the late 1950’s, it was picked up by CBS and ran for five years.

Bernay reaches to a black and white of a group of little kids circled around a guest of the show. She points to the children in the photograph and remembers that day as if it were yesterday.

“I brought kids in from all over to be on the show,” Bernay said. “I had people with different economic backgrounds and different ethnic backgrounds.”

This was before the civil rights movement, which she later covered as a United Nations correspondent

“Discrimination horrified me,” she said. “I wanted to teach young children to unlearn prejudice.”

She didn’t have a set script because she wanted the children to interact with each other. She said she used her artistic skills in the show by story telling with drawings and paintings.

“There was always an element of surprise,” Bernay said. “I wanted to engage the kids and it worked.”

Bernay said her work was not always as easy as teaching children on a television show. She reported from Sierra Leone in the early 1990s, the turning point in her career. The country was facing political unrest and Bernay said she witnessed many atrocities she wished she could forget.

“The world wasn’t paying any attention,” she said. “I couldn’t deal with it. My head couldn’t take it.”

For Iraq, she once again turned to painting and produced a series of anti-war paintings and collages entitled, “Collateral Damage.” She drew on the things she saw in Sierra Leone and her strong opposition to the war.

“They classify a mistake as collateral damage, as if it is just a side effect of fighting in a war.”

Specifically, the collateral damage was on a milk factory serving as a shelter for many women and children in Iraq. She said it was unintentionally bombed because it was believed to be a factory producing chemical poisons.

As she studies the powerful painting for what must be the millionth time, her aged and experienced eyes glaze over, she tilts her head to the side and just stares. “I get goose bumps when I think about the devastation I have seen all over the world,” Bernay said.

Her long time friend, Evelyn Goodman said it takes a lot to have Bernay’s determination of will and heart. “She is a remarkable person and creator.”

Goodman often hears Bernay repeat the words of Margaret Mead. “It is more complicated to understand the differences than the similarities.”

Bernay, still full of energy and love of the arts after years of work, strives to apply that advice to everything she does.

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