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  Peter Berg: Artist, painter, my friend
by Howie Green

I first met Peter Berg in the fall of 1966 when I was a freshman art student at R.I.T. on the old campus in Downtown, Rochester, NY. Peter was outspoken, funny, brilliantly talented and charismatic as Hell. I was drawn to him immediately because he was one of the few people in our class who could draw -- and I mean DRAW!

At that point in my early life I thought I was pretty good but upon thumbing through Peter's sketchbook I was struck with a massive attack of "what the Hell am I doing in the same class with this kid?" What I should have thought was; what the hell is he doing in the same room with the rest of us clowns? At the age of 17 Peter was already an accomplished draftsman far beyond the abilities of almost everyone else in the whole school, including faculty. Peter's talent stood out quickly and since a few of us kids could draw a little and sharpen our pencils without stabbing ourselves, we formed into a loose group of friends which, among others, included R. Emmett Connor, Karin Harter, Yvonne Cupolo and Peter.

Peter had been drawing and painting for years by the time we entered art school while the rest of us momos had barely done much work at all. He was as art freshman trying to master the oil painting techniques of Rembrandt whose works he studied for their technical proficiency and implementation. As for myself at that same point in time I was happy that I even knew who Rembrandt was. I'm Dutch, he was Dutch... yea, that's pretty much all I knew.

Peter was confident far beyond his years, which was a bit intimidating for me as I was just starting to come out of my teenage cocoon and spread my own wings a bit. Peter's boisterous good humor and enthusiastic tirades about the sorry state of the world are fond memories from my freshman year of school. I had never met anyone who was able to give voice to such joyous passion and vehement hatred and all in the same sentence. Peter loved and loathed with great gusto and he was never afraid to express his opinion -- and, to his credit, always welcomed a good verbal battle.

And he was freaking funny. He loved to laugh and I think Peter and I became friends because I could make him laugh and we shared the same generally cynical view of the world. I remember laughing a lot when I was with Peter. Peter did not suffer fools gladly. If he thought someone had no talent he wouldn't even bother talking to them. So I always felt a bit honored that he was my friend. I guess he thought I was worth the trouble. Not that he was mean -- he was just in a hurry. Looking back on it now maybe he knew he would have far too short a life.

He was also a terrific guitar player and I was a pretty good harmony singer so we also bonded over our love of the Byrds albums and especially the guitar mastery of Roger McGuinn. Peter used to marvel at the technical dexterity of McGuinn and tried (and almost succeeded) to duplicate McGuinn's genius solos on his 12-string acoustic guitar while I sat watching him with my jaw in my lap. I could strum a few basic chords so to see this damn kid not only paint and draw like a genius but also play guitar like a pro - well you could hate a boy like that. I have one very fond memory of a lovely spring day in 1967 when Peter and Karin Harter and I were laying out in the sun listening to the radio and the three of us singing along in harmony to the Young Rascals.

I also fondly remember the New Years Eve celebration at Peter's parents house at the end of 1967 when we loudly played and sang along to the then new second Buffalo Springfield album wondering where on earth Neil Young ever got that voice and how he made his guitar sound like his stings were made of barbed wire. Ah those halcyon days of youth!

Peter's body was always his enemy and his ongoing battles with food and his sluggish metabolism ultimately proved his undoing. In freshman year he took karate lessons to get some additional exercise and lose some weight. The lessons came as a result of an unfortunate incident that happened to us as we were walking into Midtown Plaza in downtown Rochester. As usual we were laden down with sketchbooks, toolboxes and other geeky art student stuff chattering away about something or other when we were mugged by a group of young urban lads. It happened so quickly that I barely even knew what had hit me. I got punched and knocked down but I don't recall even having the presence of mind to fight back. Peter however, did fight back and this whole brief violent episode spurred him into action. Never again was he ever going to get caught off-guard by a bunch of street punks. I became much more aware of my surroundings as a result of the incident and became much more street-savvy but Peter took karate lessons and started carrying a knife. And as far as I know no one ever messed with him again.

By the end of our freshman year Peter had understandably had enough of art school. He was so far beyond the rest of us that I understood his frustrations. I was, however, a bit dumbstruck when he up and joined the armed services and toddled off to Alabama or someplace hot and disappeared for a couple years from my life. I missed him. The remainder of my time at R.I.T. was spent with Mike Gilbert who I met in the beginning of our sophomore year - but he's a whole other story. When Peter and Karen returned to Rochester a couple years later we renewed our friendship and spent a lot of time in the spring and summer of 1970 listening to James Taylor's "Sweet Baby James" album in his sweltering attic painting studio while we both tried to replicate James' guitar playing techniques - which we never did. After that summer I moved to Boston and Peter and Karen came up for a visit in which I remember us laughing - a lot - especially at one particularly colorful curse which brought us all to tearful fits of laughter. Friends who make you laugh are worth keeping for life. I know that now. I didn't know that then.

During the next few years we unfortunately drifted apart as our lives took different paths. Peter and Karen returned to school and sometime in there the two of them drifted apart as well. I was surprised when I learned that they had separated and I never met Peter's new wife after that. I regret losing touch with them and I was shocked by Peter's untimely death. He was the first friend I ever had who died. He was always struggling with his weight. I remember Peter once saying that wouldn't it be great to have an entire life in which you could just eat anything you wanted as often as you felt like it. Yes indeed Peter, maybe next time around.

During the course of our friendship I managed to acquire several of Peter's original drawings and 3 of Karen's silkscreen prints which I have photographed and display on this web page. I also recently acquired the 1971 self-portrait.

I hope that you enjoy seeing these early pieces from the brilliant and talented boy who went on to a too-short career as a teacher and as an acclaimed painter. Even as a teenager Peter was particularly drawn to the faces of African Americans. His drawing of the man's head is one of my most prized art possessions and clearly indicates his early fascination with a lifelong subject matter.

The silk screen prints were done in 1969 or 70. I had access to a silk screening set up in the basement of the RIT 50 West Main Street building and Peter, Karin and I spent a good deal of time experimenting with trying to make prints from his artwork and from Karin's drawings. These examples of Karen's brilliant draftsmanship show that she is clearly an accomplished artist with a bold and distinctive style.

All the work I show here was done during our time at RIT when we were all between 17-21 years old. One of our drawing classes had us constantly outside drawing the world around us including buildings, animals, cars, whatever. The whole "plein air" thing. I always felt that Peter had a special eye for architecture and I always wished he had done more with his ability to render buildings. I could barely sketch out a basic shape in the same time he had not only captured the entire structure but has also managed to render every window, shutter and door knob with style and flair.

I did this web pages because I was shocked that there is nothing available online about Peter or his art. He was a treasured friend of my long ago youth, but more than that he was a fabulous artist and I want to make sure I do whatever small bit I can to keep his memory and images alive and available for your enjoyment. Peter Berg was quite simply the most talented person I have ever known.

Howie Green

Karin Harter Berg Lewis have been in contact again for a while now and she and her hubby Ross and their son are alive and well in Florida.

I have been planning to do an online gallery website to archive Peter's work for some time now. Web and phone technology has been changing so rapidly that I have waited to figure how to proceed with the best plan.

I have been collecting images, scans, photos, etc of any and all of Peter's work from numerous sources, most importantly through Peter's wife, Susan Tkach.

If you own any of Peter's artwork we would like to know so we can include it in the new web site. Please contact me so we can be sure to include any of Peter's work that you own.