The Masters at Work

Local art educators showcase their own portfolios at Gallery Z


Years ago, when Bérge Ara Zobian was an art student at Rhode Island College, he submitted a photograph to his professor, Larry Sykes. In class, Sykes examined Bérge’s print and complimented it. Then he tore it, violently, in front of the other students. Bérge was shocked. His eyes welled with tears. He’d spent three days developing that silver-gelatin image. He had tried 30 or 40 prints before perfecting his portrait. Now it was ruined.

The reason: Bérge had cropped the photo paper with scissors, not a scalpel or paper cutter. The edges were noticeably uneven. Sykes wanted to teach him a lesson – not to take shortcuts, even at the end of a laborious process. Bérge never forgot, and he was ultimately grateful for that harsh lesson.

Today, Bérge is a respected pro photographer. He has owned Studio Gallery Z in Federal Hill for the past 18 years, representing more than 400 artists from all over the world. When he describes his incident with Sykes, Bérge is affectionate, even good-humored. He harbors great respect for his old mentor. Indeed, Sykes is one of a dozen fine art professors showing work at Gallery Z this month, in an exhibit called Works of RI Artist-Educators.

“The idea came from staff members, sitting around a table,” says Bérge. “The theme is to showcase artists that have a foot in Rhode Island. These people are professors. It’s a group of people that are very independent, very hungry to create art. They’re waking up at five in the morning to work on their portfolios.”

Teaching is a common day-job for visual artists. The benefits are manifold: paychecks, networks, intellectual stimulation, and the satisfaction of grooming young talent. Yet students often wonder what kind of art their instructors make when they’re not in an academic setting. Works of RI Artist-Educators is a chance to showcase that extracurricular work, to demonstrate the depth and range of their own creations.

As with Sykes, Bérge has a strong personal relationship with each of the artists showing at Gallery Z. The roster is diverse, as are their backgrounds: There’s Nilton Cárdenas, who grew up in Peru and paints colorful expressionist landscapes. There’s Bob Dilworth, who uses lively mixed media in his portraits, much of it exploring the African American experience. Bérge knows all their life stories, and he speaks glowingly of their careers; he notes that two of the featured artists are deceased, and for them, Works of RI Artist-Educators serves as a kind of retrospective. Curated by Julian Penrose, the exhibit features art instructors of all levels.

Bérge himself will show at the exhibit, although he is bashful about this fact. After he earned his master’s degree from Rhode Island College in 1982, he briefly taught photography and instructional technology for the college. He has also judged art contests and presented lectures, and his colleagues felt that Bérge more than qualified as a “RI educator.” “I feel it’s a conflict,” says Bérge. “But they said, ‘You’ve taught. You’ve traveled. You should be in this exhibit.’” He finally relented and will show three of his own photographs.

This is the first exhibit of its type at Gallery Z, and it’s hard to say whether there will be another. “We try not to repeat,” says Bérge matter-of-factly. “I cannot predict the future.”