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Studio Artist Turned Teacher Makes Art Hands-On

Students Help Create ArtPrize Piece Featuring Abraham Lincoln, Barack Obama and Martin Luther King Jr.

The handiwork of Kentwood Public Schools students is present in the faces of three American leaders who smile down from art teacher Jerry Berta’s ArtPrize piece.

The 36-by-12-foot mural, “The Conversation ~ What Would They Say?”, features President Abraham Lincoln, President Barack Obama and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. in front of an American flag. It is spread across the side of Grand Rapids City Hall, 300 Monroe Ave. NW, for the ArtPrize competition that ends this week.

“The Conversation ~ What Would They Say?” placed in the Top 25 in the installation category for the public vote in ArtPrize
“The Conversation ~ What Would They Say?” placed in the Top 25 in the installation category for the public vote in ArtPrize

Berta created the piece with help from about 800 students from Kentwood’s Bowen, Meadowlawn and Explorer elementary schools and from Ellington Academy, a charter school in Grand Rapids. The piece finished in the Top 25 of the public vote in the installation category.

Berta started the mural last year with students when he taught at Ellington. This fall, he had Kentwood students add their prints when he began working in the district. Instead of using brushes, students used their hands and fingers to dab paint, impressionistic style.

“These kids see this. They see it big,” Berta said. “They’ve experienced it by putting their hands on it and that makes a difference as opposed to just looking at something. That’s what art’s about.”

As students worked, they discussed what the leaders would really be conversing about. Students said Obama would say “Thank you” to Dr. King, and Lincoln would reply, “You’re president? How long did that take?”

Bowen Elementary fifth-grader Malachi Hanson, who attended Ellington Academy last year, worked on the project at both schools. He said it’s fun to see the piece he helped create in ArtPrize. “It is really cool,” he said.

Malachi believes a conversation with the three leaders would include King talking about “freedom,” Obama talking about “fairness” and Lincoln talking about “kindness.

Berta has his own thoughts on how the conversation would unfold.

“I think they would share a smile,” Berta said, dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and his signature colorful, plastic glasses. “As far as American history, these three gentlemen would make the most interesting conversation.”

Jerry Berta smiles in his Bowen Elementary School classroom
Jerry Berta smiles in his Bowen Elementary School classroom

Modeling Passion Through Teaching

Berta, 64, went into teaching after a long career in art. He and his wife, Madeline Kaczmarczyk, are both studio ceramics artists. Berta bought and restored the iconic Rosie’s Diner in Rockford, which he resold in 2004. Berta also worked on art with students with special needs through the program, Very Special Arts, now called Artists Creating Together.

At the age many people consider retiring, Berta got his teaching certification from Aquinas College in 2012. He taught art in Muskegon Heights and Grand Rapids Ellington Academy of Arts and Technology before starting in Kentwood this fall.

He also created a three-dimensional piece for last year’s ArtPrize, “I Love My Beautiful Brain,” with Muskegon Heights students.

“I want to inspire my students to find enjoyment in whatever they do in life,” he said. “I found my joy in the creation of art and was very fortunate that people wanted to pay me for something I got so much joy out of creating. I want to share this passion with my students.”

Bowen Principal Blair Feldkamp said the district is lucky to have Berta.

“Not only does he understand the art and the history of the art. He is very, very creative in how to pull kids into art,” he said. “The engagement in this building with this piece has been absolutely phenomenal.”

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The Conversation – What Would They Say?

My Beautiful Brain

“The Conversation ~ What Would They Say?” placed in the Top 25 in the installation category for the public vote in ArtPrize.
‘The Conversation ~ What Would They Say?’ placed in the Top 25 in the installation category for the public vote in ArtPrize.

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is associate managing editor and reporter, covering Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013 and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio or email Erin.

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