Monday, February 1, 2010

Bertha Halozan: A Folk Artist on Broadway


Most of the great folk art finds have been made in places lost and forgotten, dusty back roads or out-of-the-way antique shops across the country. Imagine, then, walking down Broadway in midtown Manhattan and coming across a street vendor who, instead of peddling hot dogs or pretzels, was showing her paintings to passerby.

Such was the case with Bertha Halozan. Bertha was born in Austria and emigrated to the United States in 1956. She made her way in her new country by working in hospitals as a physical therapist and running a beauty shop. She was also a singer, and gave several performances at Carnegie Hall in the 1960s. With favorable reviews in the media and numerous friends, Bertha had built a wonderful life for herself in the city.

That all came to a halt in 1978, when Bertha suffered a heart attack and stroke that left her incapacitated. To lift her spirits, a friend gave her canvas and paints. As she thought about what to paint, Bertha recalled her many visits to Liberty Island where she would lay on the grass and look up in adoration at the Statue of Liberty. It was her favorite retreat, and the great statue became a patron saint of sorts to her.

So in 1979 Bertha began to pay homage to Lady Liberty on bright canvases with lively brushwork, always including the phrase, “We love Statue of Liberty/There are still some good people living in this world.” Around the iconic figure of Liberty (depicted in Heidi fashion with blue eyes and pigtails, and marked by the original date of completion, 10-1889; of course the correct date is 1886) she includes birds, swimmers, Austrian dancers, baseball players, and boats; all blessed with grace and freedom of motion that her stroke took from her. She even includes the Goodyear blimp as a way of saying that every year is a good year if you are alive.

When I met Bertha in the early 1990s, she was living as a long-term resident in the Woodward Hotel on Broadway and 55th Street, and spending her days pushing her small cart loaded with paintings around midtown to show to whoever was interested. When the police would try to close her down as an illegal peddler, she would point out that she was not, in fact, selling anything.

What she was peddling was much more precious; she was sharing her life and her view of the world, the basis for her art. On the reverse of each painting Bertha took great care to paste a series of clippings about her career as a singer. In one of these, the New York Times critic proclaims, “Bertha A. Halozan, Mezzo, Has a Style Peculiarly Her Own.” When we show the painting I bought from her for the Fenimore Art Museum, we use a special exhibit case that allows visitors to go around and see the reverse. That way they can understand how, on opposite sides of each canvas Bertha has given us her two lives, before and after the stroke, with the same forthright, intense style that bespeaks her desire to share her best days and offer thanks for each new one.

14 comments:

  1. I can remember her on the street corner...I only wish I had bought one of her paintings.

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  2. Thanks, deano. You can still buy her paintings, but you can't see her on the corner anymore. Count yourself lucky.

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  3. It's one of my favorite folk art paintings in the collection, but I never knew Bertha's story. Thanks for sharing this!

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  4. You're welcome, Tobi! She was a special person and I'm glad we have something of hers to share with our visitors.

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  5. Bertha died at St. Luke's Roosevelt Hospital in New York City on November 25, 2004. She was buried in a mass grave on Hart Island on January 11, 2005. She was located in the Hart Island Project database.

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  6. Hello my name is Rudy Ramirez and i just found this info on Berta. I just bought a small painting of hers in a Goodwill store In the Atlanta Georgia area. Can anyone tell me what her paintings might be worth? I am also an artist......artbyrudy.com

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  7. I was lucky enough to talk with her a number of times on my way to Fordham and did puchase one of her delightful paintings. I decided not to go for one with the Statute of Liberty and Keith Hernandez but rather purchased one she called "Wonder Flowers" a darker painting with a vase and flowers (and some silver sparkles on the flowers). For her a more personal work. I tried to pay more than she wanted. Thank you for the information on her. She was a delightful women and I enjoyed talking with her about her exploits including Carnegie Hall recital. My painting has press clippings about it on the back.

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  8. I am glad to find this info. I have a painting of Bertha's that I bought from her in NYC on the street. I passed her on the way to a meeting and thought about the paintings the whole time I was at my meeting. I was so glad that she was still sitting there when I returned and I bought an adorable little painting that I really treasure. I think I paid $35 and this must have been in 2002 or 2003.

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  9. I am so interested in finding out about a painting my 80 year old Uncle gave to me by Bertha Halozan dated 1991. How do I go about getting this information?
    Thank you so much,
    Sharon
    chickwtwins@aol.com

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  10. Bertha Halozan paintings are the greatest! I love the Statue of Liberty and I love all the glitter! She was an amazing painter and an amazing woman!

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  12. Bless you for this wonderful post!
    I used to pass Bertha on my way to work between 1991 & 1994 - I usually would say "hello" but sometimes stop and speak with her. Of course it was her wonderful paintings that first caught my attention; they were both childlike and charming, a bright spot in my morning and in the streetscape...
    I had very little money at that time, but I did stop one day to buy a painting. She must've charged me a small amount, some where between $10 and $20. Like another fan described, I bought the painting of the flowers in a vase. I was also interested in the literature on the back as I had no idea she had been a singer…
    I left the city in 1995 with chronic fatigue, I had many moves and changes and – sadly – the painting got ruined. Then sometime in 2001 or 2002, I went to buy tickets for a show and was about to cross 8th Avenue when I noticed someone struggling to cross the street. I stopped to ask this elderly woman if she needed some help and it turned out to be Bertha! She seem to recognize me as I recognized her & it was the sweetest gift. I was so happy to see her in this unlikely moment. It gave me a joy to know she was there…
    Thank you so much for writing about her and caring enough to give her a presence here on the Internet.
    Doug Oxenhorn
    Belleville NJ

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    1. ...and, of course, a place in your museum.
      Doug

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  13. I do realize that this a few years ago, but I feel it would be relevant to say. I was renovating my house a few years back and discovered one of her statue of liberty paintings inside of my ceiling! I was very surprised and I'm very thankful for this article showing me who and what type of women she was

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