Ciel Bergman, an abstract landscape painter and Berkeley native, has died at the age of 78.
Bergman was a longtime professor at UC Santa Barbara and later lived in New Mexico. Her works, which deal with topics including environmental and feminist issues, are represented in collections at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Oakland Museum of California.
“She always thought of herself as a Berkeleyan,” said UC Berkeley history of art professor emeritus Peter Selz about the artist.
Bergman was born in Berkeley and graduated from Berkeley High School in 1956. In 1959, Bergman became a registered psychiatric nurse but ultimately decided to pursue a career in art. In the 1970s, she took classes at UC Berkeley’s art department and graduated from the San Francisco Art Institute. Bergman also later taught at UC Berkeley but predominantly taught at UC Santa Barbara, where she remained for 18 years. She eventually moved to Cerro Pedernal near Abiquiu, New Mexico, and finally to Santa Fe.
Bergman’s decision to move to New Mexico was motivated by an encounter with the artist Georgia O’Keeffe, according to Selz. Although the two artists did not spend much time together, Bergman was impressed by both the conversation with O’Keeffe and the landscape of the Santa Fe area, Selz said.
“There is a very warm, human quality to (Bergman’s) paintings,” Selz said. “I would call them color abstractions based on nature … with a very human feeling.”
In addition to Bergman’s devotion to landscape and nature in art, her interests extended to environmental issues. For a 1987 exhibition titled “Sea of Cloud What Can I Do,” Bergman and her students collected trash at a beach in Santa Barbara, loaded it into garbage bags and displayed them at the Santa Barbara Contemporary Art Forum (now called Museum of Contemporary Art Santa Barbara), Selz said.
Julie Joyce, curator of contemporary art at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, described Bergman’s work as “defiantly feminine” and bold for her time.
In 1988, Bergman — who was born Cheryl Maria Olsen and later known as Cheryl Bowers, after taking the last name of her husband, Lynn F. Bowers — legally changed her name to Ciel Bergman in honor of her grandmother.
Many considered it “career suicide” for Bergman to change her name after she had already gained popularity with her art, especially at a time when it was an issue for women even to keep their surnames after getting married, according to Joyce.
“It’s very timely in that she really embraced the feminine, which is a form of feminism itself, and which is kind of nice to look back upon in this moment,” Joyce said.