Monet painted his Water Lilies with failing eyesight. Beethoven composed his Ninth Symphony despite total deafness. Given those precedents, the unorthodox approach to painting taken several years ago by artist Rosann Berry, who's also an SI layout designer, made perfectly good sense—even if it appeared that she was completely in the dark.
Berry, who joined SI's design team in June 1993, began painting still lifes when she was 14. She polished her craft outside her native Philadelphia at Temple University's Tyler School of Art, spent a year studying in Rome and earned a bachelor of fine arts degree from Tyler in 1980. Then she moved to New York City, where she turned out still lifes of discarded dresses, high-heel shoes and broken glass.
But by 1987, despite having shown her work at various exhibitions, she felt stifled. One day she decided to turn off the lights in her Chinatown studio and paint in total darkness. "I had to start over, go back to the basics and suspend judgment over my work," Berry says. "Several human bodies appeared to me. They reconnected my heart to the work."
Revitalized, Berry turned the lights back on and switched her artistic focus from lifeless objects to human beings. She was her own first subject, painting herself from photographs and from her reflection in the mirror. It was a decision dictated by economics more than aesthetics: Berry was supporting herself with waitressing and telemarketing jobs and couldn't afford to pay a model.
Soon she wanted to probe even deeper. She bought medical textbooks, and her paintings began to explore the inside of the body, especially the nervous system and muscles. And with this artistic epiphany, her own opinion of her work improved.
After six years holed up with her canvases, perfecting her insides-out style, she opened her studio doors for a public show. Among those attending was a Swiss journalist writing a series on New York artists for the two largest French-language newspapers in Switzerland. The writer was so captivated by Berry's style that she featured the artist in one installment of the series.
Berry's paintings of the body's inner structures are now turning more heads. Last week her first major exhibition, entitled Blind, opened at Manhattan's Ansonia Gallery. To some, the abstract depictions of human organs, cells, exposed nerves and the like might seem eerie. But Berry believes that focusing on the inner body is the best way to move beyond surface meanings and get to the heart of things—sometimes literally.
It is her eye for detail that makes Berry so valuable as an SI designer. "Her background in fine arts and her unique perspective bring so much to our ability to illustrate," says Steve Hoffman, SI's director of design/new media. "Hopefully, though, she isn't doing any designing with the lights out."
No, not exactly. However, Berry admits that occasionally at deadline time she is tempted to flip the switch. "Come the frenzy," she says, "I sometimes think, Let's just design in the dark. But I usually fight through that."