A Special Studio: Interview with Bernice Sorge

A number of Agora Gallery‘s artists work in unusual studios, many of which have an impact on the way they create art. You can read about some of them in Studio Spaces, a frequent feature in our contemporary art magazine ARTisSpectrum. Bernice Sorge‘s studio is perhaps especially unusual, though – she works in what was an abandoned church, located in the middle of a field, which she found entirely by accident!

Bernice working in studio

Tell us about your studio!

How did you find it? What made you realize it could be a great place to use as a studio?

I found the church just after I moved from Montreal to the Eastern Townships of Quebec during one of those mass emigrations of young people back to the country in the late 70’s. While traveling across back-country roads on my way to a meeting I was forced to ask my friend who was driving to stop the car immediately. To my left was an old graveyard and to my right hidden among the trees was an old abandoned church, I knew right away that I would have this building one day. I knew it was mine. I had an immediate connection to the wild state that it was in: the old apple trees, the berry bushes, the fancy wood ceiling and the arched windows falling apart.

Studio exterior

It evoked something otherworldly and took me back to the childhood experience of going out into the wild to ‘find.’ My mother used to send me into the fields to gather wild foods for our table, partly out of necessity. This experience of gathering edibles from the mass of grasses and weeds was one of the most remarkable of my childhood. It gave me a sense of power and conquest. Nature became a mystical companion that offered an unconditional source of nourishment connecting me and my mother to a secret cache that was only visible to me and her. This knowledge given to me by my mother opened a door for me, a door with endless possibilities and hope and the belief that something can always be made out of nothing.

Thus the old church hidden among the overgrown trees conjured up a memory of the childhood experiences of finding the good weeds among the inedible ones. I felt that it was waiting for me, abandoned by everyone and just waiting. I fell in love and imagined myself working in the tower of this precarious structure that had a lean of about 20% due to the large foundation stones slowly sinking into the ground, the roof peeling off, the windows broken, empty and falling apart.

Studio shot

I found a way to get inside and stood in awe on the main floor with the light coming through the large windows dancing on the walls, playing with the stains and cracks of the thick plaster. I wondered, “Was this to be the four walls of my new freedom” (Merton)? I had no money, no job, three little boys and a husband who was a teacher working 100 km away in Montreal. But I knew I would find a way. I fell back on my education – by then I had two degrees, one in Science and one in Education – and within a week I found a job teaching college part-time.

Do you think the atmosphere or anything else about your unusual studio has had an impact on
your work?

The building definitely had an impact on my work and I had an impact on it! It became a safe place to express the things that were important to me as an artist and mother. It was a perfect fit for my idealistic views of the world, for my desire to make the world a better place for my children. I taught workshops to children in drawing, painting, sculpture and printmaking. It was also a place for women to come together and work as artists. At one point I founded and ran a printmaking co-op on the bottom floor of the church.


The building was a very active center for the arts mixed with the politics of feminism. Over the years I developed a painting course called Painting from Within © Sorge which brings together nature, meaning, spirit and art. The environmental activism was expressed by organizing special exhibits in the church studio. One, for example, was the Quebec wing of the ”International Shadow Project” where artists came together to paint the streets and sidewalks with shadows in memory of the people who died at the moment the atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima.

At times I feel as if the church found me. I was in search for a spiritual life but not through religion. My constant preoccupation is to bring nature and art together in a spiritual wholeness. Perhaps that’s why I went back to university and took my Master’s Degree in Art Therapy. In this wonderful healing process I take my clients out into nature and they bring fragments back into the church studio to explore the existential meaning of their suffering. It is important to say that I am not religious at all. I stopped going to church when I was eleven years old as a protest over the hypocrisy that I saw and experienced.


The church studio with its high windows and the light flickering through the trees, the quietness, this place out of time resonates with the memories of ceremony: birth, death, baptism and marriage rituals. People who were once members of this special chapel constructed in the middle of a farmer’s field have often dropped in or have spoken to me from the edge of the road telling me they are afraid to come in because the story is that it is haunted, or that their parents were married here. I honour their comments and understand what it means to them.

My studio still looks like a church except that the steeple was taken down and the large cast-iron bell is sitting in a farmer’s field. I have added a stained glass window above the double arched doors to replace the one taken by looters while the church was abandoned. The theme of the window is what surrounds me: birds, horses, plants, and acid rain…

Stained glass window

It is hard to say if I am influenced by the history of my studio as a place of worship but my creative process is about renewal, despair and hope, destruction and re-creation. Through this and nature that surrounds me I am able to go on, to explore further and take on challenges. My paintings never seem to have an end – even if a painting is against the wall, seemingly finished, I might pick it up and re-paint it or tear it up and collage with it. Painting is a continual process of renewal. It is only when a work is taken away that there is no further possibility of transformation.

Do you ever work outside your studio? If so, does this have an impact on your work?

When I have travelled and worked in other places or studios I often bring the attachment with me. It often demands to be integrated into the new place. Two years ago I was rewarded a two month residency working in the city of Montreal. The morning I was leaving I had the car all packed and took a last stroll around my studio. I saw my shadow on the compost pile and could not resist taking photos. These photos combined with photos taken spontaneously on my walks in the city became the basis of a new series of digital prints. My solo show at the end of the residency was entitled “Where is here?” on the theme of transformation with the shadow of the body as a symbol of the human in relationship to the soil; it was called, “Body and Soil-Body and Oil.”

Bernice painting in studio

Surrounding the studio is a large field and a little wood. I work in the field a few times a week, sometimes with the help of friends, on a long-term project to change it into an edible forest garden (permaculture). Everything is being done by hand except for the use of a small rototiller. I guess I am a part-time farmer. Often after a half day of working with the soil I feel renewed and more creative and open. So I go inside and paint or prepare a new wild printing plate. The outside work is important in that it nourishes what I do inside. My energy is heightened and I am ready to take on anything, even a painting that needs to be taken apart, painted over or destroyed.

You have a background in science and biology, which clearly feeds into your botanical prints.
Could you tell us what sort of an impact it has?

The idea for the botanical prints of large leaves taken from wild plants (some domesticated perennials) happened one day when I was once again taking burdocks out of my dog’s fur and my childrens’ hair. I asked myself how I could get rid of some of these giant plants without using poisons or destroying the whole balance within the little ecosystem where they grew. I wondered if I could use some of them to make prints. I took one to my studio to experiment. It was quite frustrating because the leaf squished out its juices onto the paper and the press!

Studio interior

After weeks of trying I got a reasonable looking print and eventually developed a formula for preparing the leaves so that I was able to make a mould and print them to perfection. From then on I began a project of collecting the leaves of wild plants, making printing plates, recording their names in Latin, French and English, etc. and researching to find out if they were edible of course. I have kept the DNA of each plant so that when wild plants are eventually transformed by genetic modification I will have the original matter for the future when farmers will need old varieties for the survival of domestic plants.

All of this is the scientist in me. I do not see a disconnect between science and art. Both use the steps of the creative process from the first decision around the quest to the exploration and the recording of the results. For me the original prints are the data, and the source of that data, the land and environment around my special studio.


You can find out more about Bernice Sorge and view more of her artwork, produced in and around her special studio, on her website.

From Bicycle Parts to Work of Art: An Interview with Cordell Taylor

Cordell Taylor is one of Agora Gallery‘s talented represented artists. He usually works in metal, wood and stone sculpture, but this year he was given a new challenge. SRAM Bicycles and the Kimball Art Center invited artists nationally to submit portfolios, and from the applications they chose 25 artists to participate in an exhibition on behalf of the SRAM pART PROJECT, in support of World Bicycle Relief. Those artists, of whom Cordell was one, received a package of bicycle parts, and the instruction to create a piece of artwork that incorporated at least 25 of them. From there, they were on their own! Cordell found that he loved the challenge, and the knowledge that he was being given the chance to help others through his art – but that didn’t mean that there weren’t some difficulties along the way! Read more

Get to Know Our Staff: Q&A with Alexandra Cespedes

If you’ve had much contact with Agora Gallery, there’s a good chance you’ll have come across Alexandra Cespedes, our Marketing Assistant, who works with artists to help them work out what they’re looking for in terms of promotion and ensure that they get it. Friendly, fun to be with and enormously professional, Alexandra is popular with gallery staff, visitors and artists alike!

Alexandra at a reception

From Left: Clara, Sabrina, Alexandra

Q&A with Alexandra

When did you first discover your interest in art?

My mother always said I was born an artist. She still has my very first painting from when I was six years old. Growing up in New York and being exposed to museums, galleries and street art, I fell in love and became an art appreciator at a very young age.

Is there anyone in your life who particularly encouraged you to explore your love for art?

My mother always pushed me to explore my talents. She enrolled me in performing art schools all through grade school and high school. She celebrated all my academic and artistic achievements. She encouraged me to pursue my love for the arts and make it my career.

Alexandra in Agora

What made you decide to take your interest to the next level with a BFA?

Honestly, getting my BFA seemed like the next logical and natural thing to do. While attending the Fashion Institute of Technology I was able to explore so many levels of the art industry and fashion that I was always eager to learn more. I didn’t approach it as a degree I needed in order to acquire greater success in my career, but happily continued my studies in the pursuit of knowledge.

What made you realize that you wanted to work in the fine art world?

I knew nothing else would make me happy.

Alexandra at Agora

From Left: Clara, Nellie, Sabrina, Alexandra, Chiara, Anya

What’s your favorite aspect of working at Agora Gallery?

I love working with all these highly educated, brilliant and talented women. Our team at Agora is pretty incredible and we’re all so supportive of each other which makes for a great working environment. I also enjoy meeting so many different artists from all over the world who have such tremendous talent. Listening to their experiences, stories and drive is inspiring.

If you could meet one figure from art history, who would it be?

Frida Kahlo de Rivera, the female Mexican painter who is best known for her self portraits. Her life’s work is an inspiration to me, as a Latina and female artist myself.  Her work screams passion, love, and pain and she humbly put her anguish on canvas for all to see. I admire her greatly, because through all her life’s challenges she never stopped painting.

Staff Interview: Q&A with Chiara

Chiara Mortaroli is Gallery Registrar here at Agora Gallery, and many of our readers will have grateful memories of the way she helps artists to ship artwork and get it through Customs, and generally makes their exhibition process as smooth and enjoyable as possible, in addition to helping out at opening receptions with a beaming smile and the many other ways she is involved with day-to-day life at the gallery. Since so many people come into contact with her through the gallery in one capacity or another, it seemed like a good idea to share an interview with her discussing both her background and her love of art. Enjoy!

When did you first discover your interest in art?

Very early on. I was raised in a very artistic family. My father is a professional creative and used to create paintings of our summer vacations – the houses, the landscapes, us etc. My grandpa was an engineer by day and a poet at night, my great-grandmother left my mom amazing paintings which she had done during World War Two, and my mother also appreciates and collects marble sculptures. The smell of paint and conversations about art were always in the air. It was just natural for me to be interested in it.

You have lived in both Milan and Rome, where you got your BA in Art History. Do you think that growing up in Italy, with all its history and art, had an impact on you?

Definitely. Studying art in Italy is a big deal, obviously, because many people do so. You are constantly pushed to explore different interpretations, analyze deeply every single detail of an artwork, on both a conceptual and a physical level, and as a result to have a comprehensive yet specialized opinion on it. It taught me how to recognize what I like best in art and ultimately to develop my respect and understanding for the efforts that make artists who they are.

You traveled widely in Europe. Did those experiences influence your love of art in any way?

Absolutely, they were so important. Italy is an “open air museum;” the arts are in evidence on every street corner. The work of centuries past is everywhere – you can walk past the Coliseum without realizing its first construction started as long ago as 72 AD. Italians are obviously very proud of all of this but it is hard to get a sense of current artistic developments while staying in Italy. I feel that unfortunately there is not much space for “the new” when “the old” is so important. My trips around Europe made me love forms of art that I never even came across during my university studies, an experience that taught me not to have prejudices but to be open to everything I see. In France, Spain, Germany, England, Turkey and Greece I received precious lessons from unexpected as well as traditional sources. For example, I learned as much about Byzantine art from the rug sellers in the Grand Bazaar as in the stunning Hagia Sophia of Istanbul. Those trips really taught me how to enjoy art freely, instinctively.

What made you realize that you wanted to work in the fine art world?

Fine art combines many of my favorite interests – from Logistics to Marketing, from History to Psychology, from Philosophy to Aesthetics – and ever since high school I have felt instinctively connected with it. Getting to actually work in the fine art world was not that easy though, especially in New York City where a LOT of people have the same goal, but I was definitely willing to start from the lowest position available in order to find the place that was right for me and that determination stood me in good stead.
The fine art world is always in the midst of the “evolution/discovery” process; something that no one liked a few years ago, is suddenly the new big hit today, and vice versa. This aspect encourages you to develop the flexible perspective that is needed to get along within that process and brings you closer to a part of what art is really about: talent,  charm and communication.

Why New York?

After I graduated with a degree in History of Art I decided to study Marketing instead of continuing the university path of specialization. I wanted to add a business orientation to my passion, and New York is the place everyone was telling me I should go to, to study Marketing and learn “the business.” I recall having a conversation with the Master’s department office rep about my registration and hanging up the phone thinking, “Wow, this is real, I am really going to move there.” I was only 22 and I didn’t expect this city to be that “manageable” and to fit me as much as it actually does. New York pushes you to your limits and beyond, but the result is that you come to know what you want, what you are good at and how to value those skills without losing your identity. It is just different from any other place. The people, especially, make it unique. Best decision I ever made.

What’s your favorite aspect of working in Agora Gallery?

The work ethic we have here. The high quality standards we have when it comes to being available and efficient with our artists, collectors and visitors as well as with each other. We have a great team and we really work hard to deliver the best service possible to our clientele. There is nothing better for us than hearing our artists so happy about the services they receive and I have to say that every sale really is a shared joy and accomplishment.
I like that we all come from different backgrounds and from different countries and states as much as I like the diversity of the art we exhibit. It is this range, in terms of personnel, artists and artwork, which keeps us real.

If you could meet one figure from art history, who would it be?

It would have to be Michelangelo. Not only because I did my final dissertation on him and because he was such a multifaceted artist but because history does not provide enough answers to many of the questions about his artworks, his techniques, his secret arrangements with this or that pope, his collaborations with other artists and also his love life. I love finding out about the human, personal lives behind the creation of the artwork; it allows me to connect better with the art. Michelangelo in particular had such a romantic side (he was a tremendous poet). It would be so interesting to sit down with him and ask “So, tell me, how many portraits did you actually make of Vittoria Colonna? What did you really say to Pope Julius II when he first saw the Sistine Chapel? Did you really sleep in a bed made out of straw placed on a frame?” What an interview that would be!

Q&A with Christine

If you have visited Agora Gallery anytime in the last year or so, the chances are that as you opened the door into the main gallery you were greeted by the smiling face of Christine Vittorino, our lovely Gallery Assistant who is usually on hand to welcome visitors. Christine has a BA in Arts Administration from Baruch College in NYC, an MA in Art Museum and Gallery Studies from the University of Leicester, UK, and has contributed an article to ARTisSpectrum about the value of museums considering the option of long-term collection-sharing. She’s a New York native, and if you’ve met her, you’ll already know that she’s fun, friendly and full of passion for as well as knowledge about art.

As Christine is the first person many people meet on entering Agora, it seemed like a good idea to give blog readers the opportunity to find out a bit more about her:

When did you first discover your interest in art?

From a young age, I was obsessed with fashion design – with endless drawings of faceless figures sporting elaborate designs only fit for the runway. Drawing was my primary outlet for expressing my creativity. My interest in drawing, though casual, was a constant and private interest of mine.

What made you realize that you wanted to work in the fine art world?

I actually attended a business school with a concentration in Advertising. Frankly, I did not know what careers in the arts existed at that time, so I chose the most creative window I could find in the business world. After taking Art History as a prerequisite, I discovered various art electives, including art market and museum studies. These courses grounded my understanding of the art world and offered a new direction. Ironically, business made me realize that I wanted to work in the fine art world.

Why New York?

I was born and raised in Astoria, Queens – a borough of New York City minutes away from Manhattan. After taking time to travel and live abroad, I returned to New York with a renewed appreciation for its unique culture. Not to build on any clichés of this being the “center” or “best” city, I feel it is rather designed to attract different lifestyles, which makes it so appealing. Each borough, each neighborhood carries its own identity. We have a 24/7 running transportation system, food options for any diet, and art, music and theater districts that continue to draw people from all parts of the world.

What does a typical day at Agora look like?

There is no one day that is the same as the next.  From visiting artists, patrons and tourists snapping their photographs to incoming and outgoing artwork passing through our doors — Agora Gallery mirrors the busy city in which it resides. The occasional Afternoon Tea Time is sometimes needed!

What’s your favorite aspect of working at the gallery?

Apart from the wonderful team of art enthusiasts I get to work with every day, one of the natural perks of working at the gallery is the art itself. While permanent exhibitions tend to define traditional art institutions, Agora Gallery’s exhibitions change every 3 to 4 weeks, making for continual change and inspiration for visitors; it is a true dynamic. Coming with an Art History background, there is always something to learn at Agora Gallery: from the artwork, from the artists and from the staff.

If you could meet one figure from art history, who would it be?

The magnificent Renaissance and later Baroque painter – Caravaggio. In my studies, I was fascinated by Caravaggio’s daring and dark depictions of religious compositions. He drove the technique of chiaroscuro, juxtaposed pure realism in unnatural settings, and humanized religious figures, such as the Virgin Mary in “The Death of the Virgin.” Caravaggio furthermore lived a life of violence and mystery, which ultimately led to his dramatic death. There are so many questions!

I do also want to briefly mention one artist not yet affiliated with the traditional art history canons, but worth noting. I recently discovered the photography of Vivian Maier, an American nanny living between New York and Chicago. Her photography consists of snapshots of the everyday: street photography of the 1950s-1990s. What makes her story particularly interesting is that she did not consider herself to be a photographer. In fact, no one ever saw her incredible photography until she passed away and her photography was discovered cast away in a storage locker. I wonder how this infamously and intentionally private person would feel knowing that her photography has inspired books, documentaries and adoring followers.

What’s it like working at the gallery?

As we begin to feel that the new year really has started, it seems like a good time to answer one of those questions that so often gets asked by visitors to the gallery and in curious emails. It might even be something that you’ve asked yourself. The question is ‘What’s it like, working in the gallery?’

In many ways this is hard to answer precisely. It varies from person to person, and from day to day. Installation days, for example, are unlike any others – in fact they deserve a separate post all to themselves! – but even more ordinary days can be full of surprises. The gallery may look pristine, calm and relaxed – but that doesn’t mean that the people working in it aren’t frantically busy sometimes. Every week presents us with new challenges, but also with new sources of interest and enjoyment.

The main thing that we’ve found is to expect the unexpected. You might have thought you were going to spend most of your day making sure all the details for the coming reception were sorted out and contacting artists about their artwork, but in fact you might end up unpacking art that has arrived earlier than anticipated and talking to customs about incoming works. Of course, sometimes your list has tasks which simply have to take priority, but often the important thing is to go with the flow and deal with whatever issue presents itself to you. As long as you take it all calmly, there’s usually time for everything in the end.

When you really do run out of time, a colleague might be able to help you with some of the things that really need to happen. We’re very fortunate in the gallery in that we work well as a team, and knowing that you can always call on someone else for help or advice makes everything seem easier. Having said that, of course each member of staff has their own area of expertise and responsibility, and that will have an impact on how an individual’s day or week works out.

Maintaining a good relationship with all the people and companies who help us make exhibitions and events a success is also crucial. For example, many artists ask us to have their works framed when they arrive in the U.S. This has a number of advantages – it can be cheaper to send, is often easier to pack, and it means that we can choose the frame that suits the work best for when it is in the gallery. All this means that the framer is a crucial person in getting everything done in time and in the right way – so having a good dynamic with him is pretty important!

A number of our daily surprises come by phone and email – questions about how the gallery runs, how representation works, about artwork viewed on ARTmine and how to purchase it, and so on – but sometimes from walk-ins as well. Agora is on the second floor of our building, but that doesn’t lessen the number of people who wander in; New York is a vertical city, and even someone who is visiting relatively briefly understands that very quickly. The result is that a number of passers-by enjoy the atmosphere of the gallery, ask questions about artists, and sometimes fall in love with a particular work and just have to have it.

So what is it like working in the gallery? It’s challenging, surprising and a lot of fun!

After the storm

Everyone at Agora Gallery would like to thank all of the people who so kindly contacted us to ask how we were all doing during and in the wake of Hurricane Irene, and to check that all was well with us and the gallery. We’d like to assure you that we are all well, and that the gallery is completely fine! We’re open as normal this week and, as always, we welcome art enthusiasts to the gallery.

However, we did all have a rather dramatic weekend. The blog seems like a good place to share some of the experience of members of the Agora Gallery staff, so here we go!

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Agora Gallery’s Highlights from 2010

It’s been another busy, creative and wonderful year at Agora Gallery, and we look back on it with pride and satisfaction. Of course, there are more highlights than can really fit into a single post, and we can only mention a few of our great memories from the past year here. If you want to relive some of the other magic moments, from the Agora team’s participation in the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure event to the glories of a particular exhibition, our Facebook wall, Twitter feed and reception photos and videos are available to help you out.

As ever, the exhibition of the works of the juror-chosen artists from the Chelsea International Fine Art Competition was a refreshing look at the innovation and attraction that remains a key factor of contemporary art. The 2010 competition received an enormous number of excellent contributions, and we were delighted to present some of the winning works in the summer show.

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