2018-08-10 / Front Page

Julie Bernier: hope and courage through art

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer


Left, South Portland artists Julie Bernier with one of her works, an acrylic painting of a dog wearing rose-colored glasses that went to a pediatric eye clinic in New Jersey. The physician who owns the clinic is collecting Bernier’s paintings of animals wearing glasses for her exam rooms, to help patients relax and find joy when coming in for appointments. (Courtesy photo) Left, South Portland artists Julie Bernier with one of her works, an acrylic painting of a dog wearing rose-colored glasses that went to a pediatric eye clinic in New Jersey. The physician who owns the clinic is collecting Bernier’s paintings of animals wearing glasses for her exam rooms, to help patients relax and find joy when coming in for appointments. (Courtesy photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — The signature event of the summer in South Portland, the 39th annual Art in the Park, kicks off Saturday, Aug. 11, in Mill Creek Park.

Once again, the event is full, with 170 artists set to converge on the city’s downtown, coming from across Maine and New England. But with other annual art shows, like the Labor Day Art Show in Fort Williams Park in Cape Elizabeth and the WCSH-6 Congress Street Sidewalk Art Show in Portland having fallen by the wayside in recent years, the South Portland event has taken on increased significance, with many local artists now relying on it exclusively as their one, best show during the year to market themselves and their work to the public.

One of those hopefuls is South Portland artist Julie Bernier who owns and operates Earth Angel Arts, a gift shop and working art studio located at 81 Ocean St. in the city’s Knightville neighborhood.

A native of Winslow, Bernier, 52, now lives in Ferry Village, having moved to South Portland 13 years ago. She has a masters degree in clinical social work from University of New England, but is perhaps best known to locals, apart from her artwork, for the decade long run as owner of a puppy nursery school, Dances With Dogs, which she ran out of her backyard on Ocean Street.

This year, Bernier’s sixth at Art in the Park, she’ll share Tent No. 47 with Portland sand jewelry artist Kate Clark. On Monday, Bernier took time to speak to the Sentry about her life, her art, and Art in the Park, which she calls her favorite artistic event of the year.

“I leave each time with a sense of accomplishment and an excitement to create new work for the coming year. I couldn’t ask for more as an artist, and I am so grateful that this show exists in my hometown,” she said.

Q: What were your earliest artistic influences and how does that continue to inspire your work today?

A: I had a rather difficult childhood, but I had a grandmother who took me under her wing and I spent a lot of time with her making art and small gifts for family and to sell at art and craft fairs with her. She is one of the “earth angels” that my business is named for. She literally saved my life when I was a little girl, simply by loving me and valuing me. She was grateful every day for all the small things in life and passed that on to me. The other “earth angel” is my nephew, who died four and a half years ago when he was 22 years old, before he’d had the chance to bestow his unique gifts on the world. Basically, the premise behind my business is to spread love through art and creativity. My work is about love and loss and hope and recovery.

Q: Do you make you living solely through your art, and, if so, how difficult is that to do in this day and age?

A: I think it’s incredibly challenging for artists to build viable businesses around their art, for sure. You have to be proficient at so many things – bookkeeping, customer service, graphic design, social media, visual merchandising, website management, photography – all in addition to making beautiful art that you can turn into a product line. I’m lucky in that I really enjoy all aspects of running a small business, and having been self-employed for a long time now, I’m used to getting a lot done in a day and am very self-directed and driven to succeed.

Q. What do you feel your purpose is as an artist? What do you hope people take away from your artwork?

A: I make art that first and foremost tells the story of who I am, touching on so many facets of my life and experiences and how I chose to live. As a therapist, I place a high value on art as a means to explore, process and share emotion. When I share my work and others connect with it, the rest of the story unfolds and the work goes out into the world to do its own work – helping others feel held, understood, recognized. I know my work helps people because they reflect that back to me almost daily in the form of letters, cards, emails and reviews on my website and Facebook page.

Q: Do you have any particular themes that you try to communicate in your art?

A: Most of my art does have a message and most often it is a message of hope and courage. I make mixed media collage paintings and there is text embedded into the work purposefully. For this work, I lay down a collage before drawing and painting on top of it. Every single piece of paper used in the collage layer has importance and meaning, so that if part of that layer shows through when the piece is finished, there’s so much to discover and that’s why this type of art never gets old – the more you look at it, the more that is revealed in the layers and textures and hidden text below. I love that.

Q: Do you have a particular subject you find yourself returning to again and again?

A: I reach for compassion and empathy in my work, for myself and the road I’ve traveled, and also for the experiences we all go through as spiritual beings in a difficult world. Because I am a woman, my work is very female-oriented and women resonate with my art, photography and writing far more than men. I am a strong, independent woman who has come through a lot of hardship in my life and I’ve chosen to move through it in a positive way, always seeking to understand and be taught by my experiences. And so I pass that along to others

Q: When you sit down to do a piece, how does it communicate to you the form it wants to take?

A: There is a spiritual component of my work that cannot be denied, and that I’ve become quite comfortable with over the years. Most creative people speak of their muse – some force outside themselves that is involved in the process. I feel led by unseen forces when bringing a piece into being, that my work is a collaboration between myself and the universe. I have a lot of angels who want to work with and through me, and I guess I’ve just accepted that as part of the deal. I want to be of service, for my time here to have meant something, to make the world a better place for my having been in it – even in some small way. And I’ve put that desire out to the universe as a prayer. This is where I’ve ended up. It’s rather beautiful, I think. I am grateful and humbled to be able to do what I do.

Q: What is your typical work process like?

A: I am a self-taught artist, so my process is something I’ve just invented and honed along the way in a process of trial and error. And I think it goes without saying that in order to make good art, you have to be willing to make bad art some of the time. How else can you learn what works? Every time I settle in to make art, I come up against fear and I work through it and get to the other side. I’m willing to try all sorts of new things, just to see what will happen. That’s the beauty of mixed media collage art. You get to use all sorts of materials – inks and paints and markers and stencils and mark-making tools, and just experiment, adding layers and subtracting, too, until you feel like you’re done.

Q: How hard and/ or rewarding has it been to operate an art studio in Knightville?

A: It’s the hardest and most rewarding thing I’ve done in my professional life. When you hang your sign in the window and open your door to the public as a retailer, you know that if you fail, your failure will be very public. And that is so scary. But what keeps me going is that I have created something important for my community – a place where joy and happiness and understanding can be accessed just by walking in the door. My shop is a bright, happy, colorful place. I meet the most incredible people and have deep, meaningful conversations with my customers. They reflect back to me that I’m doing something good, something meaningful, something necessary. I sold my house and most of my possessions and closed a successful business so that I could make this dream a reality. I absolutely love being a member of the Knightville business community. It’s a special, magical place and I hope to be part of it for years to come, and to be one of the businesses that helps it to grow and thrive.

Q: You’ve said Art in the Park is one of your favorite shows. Why is that? What makes it so special?

A: As an artist, I’ve schlepped my tent and my art all over this state to do shows. None is as well-run as the one in my own backyard and I’m so proud of that fact. The show producers are friendly and accessible and they make the show easy for artists. The show fee is reasonable. The attendance at this show is phenomenal. People flock to it looking to view and buy paintings and photography year after year. It’s a community celebration of art – with prizes and the work of local students being exhibited. Children get to feel proud of their work and then they walk around the park and can’t help but understand that art is something worth pursuing, that art could even be a career for them in the future. It’s a wonderful day – my favorite day of the year. I go home tired and happy and with a lot fewer paintings than I showed up with. This show keeps me fueled as an artist, as “my people” will be looking for me year after year.

Q: What is your best advice for a young person who wants to forge a career as an artist?

A: A person who wants to be an artist full-time also must embrace their role as a business owner and an entrepreneur as well. Or they need to have a plan for how the business is going to work and how they’ll be able to afford to have other employees handle those roles eventually. At first, you need to do it all yourself, and do it all well. I hear artists who meet with me for coaching sessions say, “I hate social media,” and that’s OK. But they have to find a way to interact on social media as an artist because they need to access their customers where they hang out. I embrace all of those tasks and roles because it’s so much easier than kicking and screaming about how much I dread them. Young artists —–and all artists, really – need to develop their own personal style, to figure out what drives their art and why it’s important and who their audience is. If you can get that stuff figured out, you can build a business around that. It won’t be easy, but it will be very rewarding. There are artistic entrepreneurs that I look up to and their success keeps me going. I try to learn from them and the risks they’ve taken to grow their audiences and their businesses.

Q: What is your ultimate goal as an artist?

A: My goal as an artist is for my work to radiate out into the world in as large a way as possible. I’d like to be able to pay myself from my art business, of course, but beyond that, I’d like to be able to be successful enough to give back in large and meaningful ways through charity work funded through art sales. I think my art and the products that I create with it have so much good work to do in the world. I’m excited about the possibilities.

FMI, Art in the Park

South Portland’s 39th annual Art in the Park runs from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 11, in Mill Creek Park, located between Ocean Street and Cottage Road, one block east of the Casco Bay Bridge.

The show also hosts international food vendors between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., with musician Pete Kilpatrick in the park gazebo. A display of art by students in the South Portland schools is featured, and children attending the show can make their own artistic creations at the Kids in the Park area between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. This year’s entertainment for children will be Mad Science.

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