Sixteen years ago, St. Olaf College alumna Brenda Berkman ’73 was among the New York City firefighters who rushed to the World Trade Center in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
Since that day, when 343 FDNY firefighters lost their lives, Berkman has found healing by volunteering for the 9/11 Tribute Museum and giving tours of the World Trade Center site, which includes a memorial to the events of September 11, 2001. She has also found solace in art — specifically, in printmaking focused on the construction of the new One World Trade Center.
Her stone lithograph print series, Thirty-Six Views of One World Trade, has recently been acquired by St. Olaf College’s Flaten Art Museum.
Each piece in the series depicts a distinct view of One World Trade throughout the construction process, as well as different vantage points.
Berkman hopes that the collection will provide a jumping off point for discussion about 9/11 for St. Olaf students — most of whom are young enough that they have no memory of the country’s anguish in the days and weeks following the terrorist attacks of that day.
“This series is all about the resiliency and hope that we here in New York City, the United States, and around the world, have after enduring a terrible event,” she says. “I’m hoping St. Olaf students and faculty and the people who look at the 36 Views series see that in the work. It’s not about destruction — it’s about coming back from destruction.”
New views on campus
Berkman created six sets of the prints, and St. Olaf acquired one of them through the help of Associate Professor of Art and Department Vice Chair John Saurer, Studio Art Technician Christie Hawkins, Flaten Art Museum Director Jane Becker Nelson ’04, and St. Olaf Regent Greg Buck ’77.
“I’m really honored that St. Olaf chose to collect this series,” Berkman says. “I still have a lot of ties to the college, but I was not involved in art at all when I was a student. And it was really John Saurer and other members of the Art Department who reconnected me to art at St. Olaf through the New York Art Interim program.”
Saurer used Berkman’s series in one of his classes last spring, and he’s excited at what the prospect of now having the prints on campus could mean for his students.
“There’s nothing quite like looking at an object of art,” Saurer says. “You know, I can project images all day long on a screen, which is wonderful. But it’s not like holding the piece of paper or looking at the image in a gallery. St. Olaf is really committed to the objects of art, the exhibition of art.”
Saurer says Berkman exemplifies a St. Olaf education, and her unique career path means students can learn from her in more ways than one.
“Her desire to continue serving — to serve as a firefighter and then to continue to serve the community as an artist, defining these important events and sharing them with people — that’s really what it’s all about,” he says.
Berkman hopes students can identify with her search for purpose and mission in many different ways. She credits her St. Olaf education with helping her continue to grow.
“I think one of the great things about going to St. Olaf is that because it’s a liberal arts education, and it’s not geared toward any specific occupation, it allows you to think more broadly about what you want to do with your life, throughout your life,” she says.
Becoming an artist
After 25 years of service to the FDNY, Berkman began her career as an artist after her retirement in 2006. “I had it in my mind for a long time that I wanted to do something creative in my life,” she says.
A history major at St. Olaf, Berkman had no formal training in studio art. She reached out to friends and took one-day classes, experimenting with drawing and painting until enrolling in the Art Students League of New York in order to learn more about printmaking.
Unfortunately for Berkman, she enrolled in one of the few classes where previous work — of which she had none — was required. After some negotiation, the instructor allowed her to stay in the class, but he suggested she try stone lithography. “You have to grind the stone, which is actual physical labor. And so I think the instructor thought I would quit,” she says.
But Berkman, who broke barriers and fought to achieve equality as one of the first female fire officers in the FDNY, wasn’t deterred. “He didn’t know very much about me personally,” says Berkman, laughing. She stuck with lithography.
Berkman grew to love printmaking and lithography in particular. “It’s the closest thing you can do to creating something that looks like a drawing, and I’m kind of a realist in my subject matter. It looks like a charcoal drawing,” says Berkman.
She especially appreciates the intensive process of lithography. “I love working on the stone. The process is half of making the work. I’ve made etchings and other kinds of prints, but I always end up going back to stone lithography.”