“I’m terribly superstitious, unbelievably, frighteningly,” says Hyde Park artist Nancy Bromberg. Whenever she takes a trip, she wears a curious talisman around her neck. It’s loaded with keepsakes–an evil-eye pendant, her cheerleader’s megaphone charm from junior high, teeth from her son Jake and daughter Ruth, a lock of Jake’s hair, and the piece of paper on which Ruth wrote her own name for the first time. “If I don’t have that I’m screwed,” Bromberg says. “I don’t think I’d get on a plane or do anything important without it. I’m that goofy about it. It’s like a cross, a rosary, what people hold on to and go, ‘OK God, let’s get through this.'”
Bromberg’s homespun icon is a bit like her artwork, perhaps best described as household shrines made from found objects. “They’re real portable, sort of shrines-to-go,” says Bromberg, who’s even adapted her assemblage techniques to dressing up her 1986 Plymouth van in rhinestones, small compasses, figurines, and other doodads by attaching decorated panels to the car with Velcro. She carves miniature totem poles sporting female faces and then crafts homes for them from wooden boxes. Influenced by outsider and folk art, Bromberg decorates her shrines like extravagant fetish objects, with beads, costume jewelry, laminated photos and postcards, wire, and letters from Scrabble games and baby bracelets. Regarding her art’s quasi-religious underpinnings, she says, “My work is about daily ritual. It’s not about organized religion.” Bromberg views her products as a “guerrilla version” of sanctioned shrines: you choose what it is you want it to represent. While she has previously used her children’s hair and baby teeth for personal charms, none of her artworks contain physical pieces from Bromberg herself. A student of voodoo, she considers her own hair, teeth, and nails to be taboo materials. “These are too precious to give out to the general populace. It makes me too vulnerable. If somebody else has those things, they could use them improperly.”
Bromberg’s spiritual roots began in her family’s devoutly Jewish home in New Jersey. But when she was 14, her faith in Judaism was shattered. “It let my mother die,” she says. “For a kid in that transition stage, there was nothing to hold on to for me.” The shrines are more likely to contain objects from Christianity than from Judaism, but Bromberg maintains her position isn’t partisan. “I firmly believe in spirits and gods and God and whatever else is out there, but the organized part of Judaism failed me dreadfully and that’s why I don’t use those elements in my work.” A notable exception is found in her use of text, which sometimes resembles the mezuzah posted on the doorposts of Jewish homes. “It keeps away the evil spirits,” she says.
While she used to attend temple on Friday nights to honor the Sabbath, the 39-year-old Bromberg now goes to church in Harvey to sing with a gospel choir. When she was in her teens and 20s, Bromberg was on the road playing the upright bass and singing bluegrass, blues, and rock. That’s how she met her husband, musician David Bromberg. The pair moved to Chicago in 1980, and David attended violin-making classes while Nancy went to the School of the Art Institute.
Bromberg says her next series of shrines will deal with the subject of hunting as a phase of spirituality. She points to a work in progress, saying, “This piece is for the love of the hunt and it’s about exploring and about seeing what else is out there. There are hunts that are good just for the sake of the hunt.” To Bromberg, the hunt is a metaphor for the way you live your life. It’s not about conquest. A couple of months ago, she became a vegetarian after dreaming that chickens and cows attacked her.
A show of Bromberg’s small shrines and boxes, called Souvenirs From Heaven, is now at the Aron Packer Gallery, 1579 N. Milwaukee (suite 205), through January 7. The gallery is open Tuesdays through Saturdays noon to 6; Sundays noon to 5; closed Christmas and New Year’s Day. Call 862-5040 for more information.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Randy Tunnell.