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.