January 2007 Issue
The Artist's Way
Through recent paintings, Columbus' Bernice Koff pays homage to Dale Chihuly.
Some people spend years searching for their true calling, never finding the spark of inspiration that leads to it.
It took Bernice Koff 48 years to find her mission in life. It was while taking a watercolor class just for fun that the Columbus resident discovered her brush strokes had the power to release her inner soul.
"I came home that night with tears pouring down my face," recalls Koff, seated in an easy chair in her comfortable, brick house in the city's quaint German Village neighborhood. "My husband asked me, 'What's wrong?' and I said, 'I found my life. I actually can paint. I can make art.'"
Fourteen years later, Koff's hobby has turned into a career. Her painting exhibit, "Explorations in Color," is the sole companion to Dale Chihuly's world-renowned glass art in "Fiori: A Chihuly Garden of Glass," on display at the Franklin Park Conservatory in Columbus through February 25.
The Chihuly exhibit combines hand-blown glass sculptures from the conservatory's permanent collection with Chihuly's newest work, called "Fiori," or "flowers," in Italian. The installation combines a menagerie of squiggly, spheroid and daggerlike glass shapes that work together to resemble a colorful garden. The entire 365-square-foot Chihuly exhibit is set against the backdrop of Franklin Park's renowned floral displays.
Koff's paintings were inspired by the conservatory's first Chihuly exhibition in 2003, the year she began a series using mediums ranging from handmade paper to digital photos. On each canvas, Koff applied acrylic paint with combs, sticks and spray bottles. She also took discarded photos of paintings from her portfolio and painted over them, a style of artwork she calls Photage.
"When responding to Chihuly's art, I tap into a level of my own creativity that is deeper and more exciting than any previous painting experiences," Koff says.
Koff created the 27 pieces on exhibit -- priced from $425 to $5,000 -- between 2003 and 2006. Before this brush with fame, her career path seemed pointed toward any place but a gallery.
After growing up on Long Island, New York, she attended Queens College, majoring in English and minoring in French and education. Upon graduation, she married her high-school sweetheart, Steve Koff, and helped him through medical school at Duke University. The couple moved from city to city, following Steve's medical career. Koff worked as an editor, librarian and high-school English teacher in order to support them.
"My jobs were never my career," she says. "They were what I could do with the degree and the education I had because I was the breadwinner."
When her husband found work as a physician, Koff stayed home to raise their three children. After the kids were grown, she imagined she would find time to pursue a career writing fiction and poetry. "I always thought my love of words was going to be what I did with my life," Koff reflects.
Today, at 62, she credits moments of serendipity as the impetus for her self-discovery. When a hospital job brought her husband to Columbus in 1982, Koff suddenly found herself with time on her hands. She saw a tiny help-wanted ad in a neighborhood newspaper for a volunteer docent at the Columbus Museum of Art. She applied for the job.
"I didn't know what the word docent meant when I filled out the application," she recalls. Koff landed the position, loved it and still volunteers there after nearly 25 years. Being a docent meant Koff could take free art classes, so when a friend suggested she sign up for a continuing-education class in painting in 1992, she agreed. That's when Koff discovered her artistic talent: In one class, she was asked to paint a female figure.
"I was expecting to see some stick figure," her husband recalls. "She brought the painting home, and I said, 'Whoa, this is fantastic.'"
The budding artist was surprised, too. She decided to have her third completed painting, a floralscape, framed to give as a gift. The proprietor of the frame shop where she had the work done asked her a surprising question: "Where do you show your art?"
Koff was stunned. "Show my art?"
"Yeah," the man replied. "Would you like to have a show in my gallery?"
Koff eagerly agreed and sold two pieces. To perfect her technique, she took classes at the Columbus College of Art & Design and joined the Central Ohio Watercolor Society.
Sometimes, she admits, accidents taught her more than the instructors did. Once during a watercolor class, a friend was helping Koff pack up her supplies. While lifting Koff's painting, her pal helplessly watched horrified as a stream of paint dripped down the front of the canvas.
Koff was delighted.
"Oh, I like that!" she exclaimed. "I'm a dripper."
It was then she decided that being less cautious with her strokes could enhance her style.
"The first thing I do when I have a brand-new shiny canvas is throw paint on it," Koff says. "I don't even care if I step on it. It has to stop being precious. It's not a work of art until I make it one."
Her road to success, Koff admits, wasn't smooth. She had many bad beginnings, which she'd rip apart in frustration. Her studio, located above a carriage house in the family's back yard, is filled with paintings in various stages of completion.
One day, Koff says, she picked up pieces of her torn paintings and, on a whim, decided to add the scraps to new work. Her signature style was born.
Koff's interest in painting peaked in 2003 when she visited the first Chihuly exhibit at the conservatory. "I came home to my studio and started pouring paint like a mad woman. I was so excited and energized."
To prepare for "Explorations in Color," Koff visited the conservatory to study Chihuly's work and selected handmade papers from stores in New York and Santa Monica, California.
She kept a mental palette of Chihuly's vibrant colors and chose her paint based on those recollections. Koi fish and spheres formed from her splatters of paint resemble Chihuly's "Niijima Floats."
Interest in Koff's work has generated other exhibits. A collection of her work is currently on display at Caterina Ltd., a shop in German Village that carries art, gifts and housewares.
"[She is] a phenomenal, multi-faceted artist," says Catherine Adams, owner of Caterina Ltd. "The more you know about these paintings, the deeper you appreciate them. She has a wonder-ful gift."
Click here for Slide Show
Franklin Park Conservatory
1777 East Broad St., Columbus,
Tues.-Sun. 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Wed. 10 a.m.-8 p.m.
$7.50 adults, $6 students and seniors, $4 children ages 2-12.