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Richmond man finds expression in numbers

Art alone was not enough. Music was not enough. Nor was teaching.

“They all balance one another,” said David Berg, sitting in his Richmond home with its his-and-hers studios. His wife, Sarah Alexander, is also an artist. “I always listen to music while I work, and when practicing and composing music I am conscious of my art.”

Six years ago, Berg, 37, put music on the back burner because it was so demanding. He was burned out on the local jazz scene, playing six nights a week.

He went through a prolific cycle with his painting. But then he decided his artwork was no longer good enough, and began to wonder about his motives.

“I was looking at myself and my work through the art world’s eyes,” he said. “What was going to be successful, bring me money and fame?

“It was cancerous to me. So naturally, once I had reached the end of a creative cycle, I needed to go back inside myself, become internal, and have my art be the expression of my living, not the other way around.”

Berg is one of nine artists in Richmond Art Center’s new exhibit “North by Northeast 2,” featuring artists from Richmond, West County and nearby cities. He will also play drums at the opening of the show as part of the Darryl Keyes Ensemble.

Berg’s paintings are abstract oil landscapes that look like mountain ranges. They range in size from 9-by-18 inches to 6-by-6 feet and cost from $300 to $4,500. He uses enamels, oils, gel medium, epoxy resin, Celo-text and numerous other materials.

The show, curated by gallery director Timothy Taylor, is the second in a series of exhibits of artists from the north and northeast Bay Area.

The art center has been criticized in the past as being elitist, not reaching out to the multiethnic population of the community.

“We have ideas of trying to make the gallery a bit more accessible to the community,” said Taylor. “I’d like to let the artists of the community know that I’m always looking at art and I would welcome artists to send letters or send their slides to my attention at the gallery.”

Other artists in “North by Northeast 2” are Tom Browne, Lisa Clague, Roy De Forest, Paula Gerstenblatt, Therese Lahaie, Grace Munakata, Irene Pijoan and Adam Schwartz.

The show is opening in conjunction with “Landscape into Art,” an exhibit of landscape paintings done by artists of the National Institute of Art and Disabilities and guest artists from the Bay Area. NIAD is a nonprofit art center for adults with developmental disabilities.

The exhibit, curated by Suzanne Lacke, is at NIAD, several blocks from the art center. Both shows will have receptions Wednesday night.

Besides working as an artist, Berg has studied rhythmic music from many cultures for the past 15 years, composted, and performs as a jazz percussionist with Darryl Keyes Ensemble on recordings, television, radio, college campuses and in jazz clubs. He recently performed at Yoshi’s in Oakland during the Jazz in Flight series.

Keyes, a poet and trumpeter, describes their compositions as extending poetry beyond the spoken word into a production that combines text, voice and instrumentation.

Berg, who received a bachelor’s degree from Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, in 1981, studied art with Per Lillestrom in Spain for three years.

He has taught special education for 17 years in Oakland public schools at the elementary-school level.

“Teaching keeps me grounded. It keeps me real and people-connected,” Berg said. “When I spend too much time on my art, I lose my connection to how to communicate and deal with people. Plus there is something special about working with children. What you see is what you get, and everything about the experience is very directed, very clean.”

Together, Berg and Keyes have taught symposiums on creative writing at UC-Berkeley. Berg would bring selected paintings and a tonga drum, a melodic, rectangular-shaped African wood drum, and recordings of his drum set.

“We would have a discussion on the rhythm of writing and the rhythm of words and the nature of creativity to introduce a comprehensive way of writing,” Berg said. “As a result, the students opened up. They had thought about limitations and rules. They transcended to feeling-based writing.”

Berg said it’s not possible for him to choose between art, music or teaching.

“Say I prefer painting over music or music over teaching or teaching over painting? No way! They all come from the exact same place inside me,” he said.

“Their expression is totally different. I mean the drums are like splashy color splashing on the canvas. My paintings are very quiet and kind of tense. They are different qualities coming from the exact same center inside, but they represent only one aspect of that center. Teaching, painting and music are different ways of expressing living, from the same place.”