Ask Bernice Caligiuri about her art philosophy and you get a simple answer. “I just do it because I like it,” said the 70-year-old artist. “When I start a piece, it may be a wall hanging, a painting, or a sculpture. It’s so much fun that a whole day can go by in a flash while I’m creating it.”
Her exhibit, called What Bernice Sees and held at Bleeding Heart Art Space, confirms that fun shapes her art.
Known as the Purple Lady, Caligiuri sits in the gallery during a rainy Saturday greeting visitors. She has purple glasses, track suit, t-shirt, and hair. Even her shoelaces are sparkly purple. “I found these shoelaces at the dollar store and replaced the black ones that came with my sneakers,” she shares with a smile.
A closer look at Caligiuri’s whimsical art reveals she is a master recycler. Using discarded objects and dollar store finds, she proves art can be environmentally sound and affordable.
Her artwork began with a chance visit to The Carrot Coffeehouse 12 years ago. Her husband Alfredo had died two years earlier, leaving a big hole in her life. At The Carrot, she met Irene and Henri Yauck, who managed the place. “They were so friendly that I started coming for coffee every day.”
The artsy atmosphere quickly got to her. She started volunteering at local festivals and writing poems to read in open microphone sessions. “I wasn’t intimidated at all. I’m not scared of people. I enjoyed the clapping and laughter at my sillier poems.”
She told her daughter Angela and son Mario that she was “starting new.”
“I started to get myself together because of The Carrot. I loved the musical events, poetry readings, and of course, the art they hung on the walls. I thought, ‘I can do that, too.’ ”
As a child living on a farm in Wildwood, Alberta, Bernice Rakewich knew she had a strong imagination. Looking up at the sky, she could see something in every cloud.
School wasn’t her thing. After the family moved to Edmonton, 17-year-old Bernice began working at the GWG garment factory. Weekend nights were spent dancing at the Phoenix Club, Troc 59 (home to The Emeralds dance band) and Moose Temple. She met Alfredo at a dance and married him when she was 20 years old.
At the gallery, her history is immortalized in her art. A farm landscape is created with painted pretzels, bamboo sticks, and cans. Her husband’s ties are swirled in a 3-D wall display to look like flowers. His keys grace a collage of a Roman Colosseum to honour his heritage.
Viewers might think her lively and varied art are spontaneous outpourings, but not so.
“A lot of planning goes on in my head. I see something like Alfredo’s keys, corks from bottles, or sandwich containers from the grocery store. I think in the back of my mind, ‘What can I do with it?’ If you look at an object long enough and think about it, you can come up with art. All you need is imagination.”
Her biggest expense is glue sticks. “Do art in your own way,” she advises, pointing to an old standing ashtray now glowing with beads and necklaces. “Go for it, anything that’s in the back of your mind. Just start creating.”
Dave Von Bieker, artistic director of Bleeding Heart Art Space, is a longtime fan. “I love how Bernice creates unpretentious art. She’ll take any risks. If an art project goes well, she’ll do it again. If it doesn’t go well, she just moves on. She creates what makes her happy and what makes other people happy.”
Her exhibit runs to July 2 as part of The Works Art & Design Festival. Her art ranges from $25 to $200. To contact her directly, call 780.479.8189.
What Bernice Sees
May 21-July 2
Bleeding Heart Art Space
9132 – 118 Avenue
For gallery hours, call 780.729.3617
Header Image: Bernice Caligiuri started creating art 12 years ago. Credit: Rebecca Lippiatt