When artist Marianne Bernsen decided to start a new life, she chose Tucson. Here, in a midtown studio that’s part-laboratory, she turns ordinary objects into extraordinary art. By Madeleine Boos
Twenty years ago, on the heels of an amicable divorce, Marianne Bernsen made a list of ten requirements for the place she would start a new life. The newly single 40-something had been cold all her life, growing up in Chicago and living in Minneapolis. So, it had to be warm place, with good light, near a major university and with a teaching hospital. There should also be an international airport, seasons, ethnicity, a Jewish population (although that wasn’t too important), and it shouldn’t be too expensive. “I needed a decent car and did not want to live like a grad student,” says Marianne.
So in September 1993, Marianne Bernsen moved from Minneapolis/St. Paul to Tucson, a haven for people starting over. Though she was a full-time artist, “I needed to come as something, have an anchor.” She’d been a high school history teacher, having taught in Chicago, New York and Minneapolis, and so moved to Tucson with an identity other than artist.
Marianne had started making art a decade before. Her former husband was awarded a Fulbright scholarship in Zimbabwe, so the family moved to Africa. It was there that she started painting beads, something she’d do for the next 20-plus years.
Her work – which can be seen in her Tucson studio and in boutiques throughout the country – includes floor mats, wall collages and jewelry. “I use fabric as a canvas and layer in lace, more fabric, Chinese paper, beadwork, etc,” she explains. The floor mats are constructed with staple guns, glue guns and an artful “collection of stuff”, and are made to last with ample coats of polyurethane. They are a favorite at shows and in museum shops, including Tucson, Santa Monica and Palm Springs.
Marianne says she doesn’t do “narrative art”. Rather, her work is whimsical and fun with an identifiable point of view. She’s stylish, and someone whose opinion you’d trust and want in all things fashion. At 5’-2”, with short cropped hair and her signature round glasses, she’s radiant and tells it like it is.
Friend and marketing consultant Julie Ray met Marianne several years ago and became adviser and supporter of getting her work “out there.” Besides managing her Facebook page and digital profile, Julie arranged for a night out at MOCA Tucson. They hit a Friday night opening, each wearing a one-of-a-kind Bernsen Arts necklace, and were an instant hit. The only thing missing was New York Times style diarist and partygoer Bill Cunningham.
Walking into her studio, designed by Tucson architect John Messina, you’re surrounded by natural light, white walls adorned with color, texture and pattern. It’s no wonder that a woman who works in innovative materials would find an architect who does the same.
The studio, set behind her home in Tucson’s historic Sam Hughes neighborhood, is a simple structure clad in corrugated fiberglass. An overhead glass-and-metal garage door goes up to reveal the entryway, and sliding screen doors with perforated metal provide fresh air and patterned shadows. The ceilings are high with lots of clerestory windows and operable skylights, and the roof is standing seam metal with a gentle slope. The detailing is economical and graceful. Polycarbonate clerestory windows expose the wood structure. The ridge beam runs diagonal and the roof line slopes to the corners, making for dynamic interior space. The studio is a sensitive and refined backdrop to the artist’s lively, bold work.
Inside, you can’t help but admire her wall-hung faux frocks, which look like clothes for paper dolls. Each frock is adorned with 8, 8-foot long necklaces. The artist appreciates the absurdity of haute couture – its drama, theatricality and expense. It’s no surprise that Marianne’s muses include the late Anna Piaggi and Iris Apfel, fashion icons with idiosyncratic, even flamboyant points of view.
Marianne’s necklaces are modern and bold – a balance of ordinary objects in extraordinary combinations. Though sculptural statements, most of the jewelry is lightweight and easy to wear and to layer. Her philosophy is: why wear only one piece when six or seven together is better? On one wall are shelves of wide-mouth jars with her jewelry materials: industrial tubing, laminated paper, resin balls, wood beads, plastics, tubing, metals and random and obscure objects from the aerospace industry.
DC fashionista Ricki Peltzman sells Bernsen Arts jewelry in her upscale women’s boutique Upstairs on 7th. “Marianne makes unique, one-of-a-kind pieces. That’s what fashion is about. It doesn’t stagnate. It keeps changing, going forward,” says Ms. Peltzman. Since discovering Marianne in 2012, by asking a well- dressed customer where she got her necklace, the boutique owner has sold out Marianne’s jewelry to Washington judges, Wall Street lawyers, and other creatives and executives
Marianne won’t divulge her material sources for her necklaces. However, one of her most ingenious techniques involves punching simple geometric shapes from large industrial rubber mattes. And that brings us to her husband.
When she got to Tucson, she was surprised by the number of heroic women who, just like her, were starting over. An accomplished professional with two grown children, and a resume that even included bookstore and shoe-store owner, this dynamic artist was ready to meet a romantic partner. It was the 1990s, and classified ads were the way to go. “That’s what people did. We’d meet in a neutral place, like under the clock at The Rincon (Market),” she says. It was there that she found her man, Richard Johnson. The couple married in 2000 and share the home Marianne originally purchased in 1993.
So back to the geometric rubber punching. There is an industrial press in the corner where she’s recruited Richard, a chemist and former owner of an analytical lab service in Tucson, to patiently and laboriously punch rubber shapes for a chic chunky necklace.
Marianne commandeered his old lab tables and added casters, creating work tables appropriate for her often large creations. “Boutiques in Tucson tend to go out of business,” she laments. And so her larger audience is outside of Tucson. She focuses on showing at high-end art shows, and also sells through Etsy and her own website.
* Marianne’s necklaces start at $75 and go up to $225. Floor mats typically run $35 per square foot. The collages run anywhere from $1400 to $2600. Marianne Bersnen’s art can be found on Etsy and at BernsenArts.com.