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When she was about 12, painter Margot Bergman learned a valuable lesson for an artist: “I could be whole without other people.” She grew up in the only Jewish family in Paxton, Illinois (a town of about 3,500), in the late 1930s and 1940s. Her father started manufacturing brooms there in 1937, when she was three, and though she remembers her ten years in Paxton as mostly happy, in eighth grade something terrible happened. “I bowled well, and I guess I boasted about it,” she says, “and one of my brother’s friends called me a dirty Jew. Right after that, nobody spoke to me for a year.” Eventually her father appeared before the town’s chamber of commerce. “He said, ‘I am appalled by what is happening to my daughter. I’m not going to close my factory, but I am going to move the family to Champaign.’ Word spread so fast that the next day, most of the people in my class were talking to me.” The family left anyway, and after a year in Champaign, they moved to Wilmette.

But most of her memories of small-town life are untainted. A love of simple pastoral pleasures is evident in Bergman’s sensual, lushly colored paintings now on view at Corbett vs. Dempsey. “We would go picking the cherry and apple trees,” she says. “I remember the victory gardens, pulling radishes and chives out of the ground and collecting them for dinner or just eating them. I remember the warmth of the ground, how the apples rotted, what the cherries looked like.” Bergman’s mother had studied painting at the School of the Art Institute, and she went there for a while too. She felt it was where she belonged, yet left after a semester to marry. “I was in love, but I was a good girl, and marrying was the only way in those days,” she says. “Part of my problem is that it took me a while to realize who I really was.” She took art classes while raising her three children in Highland Park, where she lives today, and when they were young she painted every night from the time they went to sleep at eight until two in the morning. Over the decades she’s made several different bodies of work, from collaged and painted-over photographs to lyrical gouaches.

For one of the two series at Corbett vs. Dempsey, “Other Reveries,” Bergman painted over thrift-shop paintings, leaving much of the originals intact. Around the time she began buying these pieces, in about 1993, she’d noticed the art world’s move toward conceptualism–which she saw as “more about the brain than feeling”–but decided that “it didn’t matter what was going on outside of my world.” At first she bought the thrift-shop works “to rescue them and give them a home, because they were abandoned, and nobody cared.” She set a $25 limit on individual purchases (later raised to $40) and looked for visually appealing works, some of which, she says, “had incredibly interesting content.” About six months later she began painting over her finds. In Glenda, she added a woman’s red lips to match the outline of a bridge, while its vertical supports suggest her teeth. She also expanded the trees on either side to form her hair, and painted her eyes into the sky. In Birdie the original showed two cardinals, and she took the uppermost of them for a woman’s nose and added a middle bird for the mouth. In part she reasoned that faces are on the same continuum as trees and birds: “The molecules are all the same.”

About four years ago Bergman began the second series, “Wonderland.” These exuberantly colored, humorous paintings of animals “came out of bottled-up energy,” she says, “because I had needed to be very repressed in my thrift-shop paintings, sensitive to the other artist. I physically needed to let paint fly.” In what eventually became Henny Penny, she’d first been painting a fat pink pig. But, she says, “suddenly, as I was painting, the pig disappeared and the bird emerged. I had no choice–the bird just took over. I believe that this bird flew in and ate the pig. It’s silly, but when I’m doing them I feel that they have some kind of life beyond me.”

Margot Bergman

When: Through 5/6

Where: Corbett vs. Dempsey, 1120 N. Ashland, 3rd fl.

Info: 773-278-1664

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/A. Jackson.