Rachel Berman

Blind Contour Homage: “I have spoken with this green person” Rachel Berman

Rachel Berman was born in New Orleans and raised by a Southern Baptist family, who named her Susan King and did not tell her she had been adopted. She didn’t find out about her true origins until she was in her fifties. Then, she learned about her real parents, whose Jewish identity caused her to research her origins, leading her to meet her biological father and brother, and to change her name back to Rachel Berman—a comment on the rough upbringing she’d received at the hands of her adoptive parents.

A self-taught artist, Berman traveled and worked in the US, Ireland, and Canada, eventually settling in Victoria B.C. Working as a greeting card artist, her quirky animal characters, Mooky McBeth and Vanessa Vanilla, eventually became characters in children’s books. She was nominated for a Governor General’s award for English Language Children’s Literature-Illustration in 2009 and 2013.

Berman’s paintings have been exhibited in many places, but most frequently with the Toronto’s Ingram Gallery. Her gallery paintings are hauntingly beautiful. She drew from her experiences in the streets of London, Dublin, New York, Toronto, and downtown Vancouver. She never owned a camera but spent hours sketching in housekeeping rooms, worn hotel lobbies, cafes, and metro stations. The enigmatic figures and hidden stories in her paintings reflect the struggles and mysteries she lived through herself. She once said that her art was autobiographical—her search for herself.

Berman suffered from HIV and hid her illness from her loved ones for a long time, ashamed of her early lifestyle and drug addiction. However, living with AIDS eventually made her grateful: “It did give me time to think, not about what the disease has taken away from me but what it has given me, and for which I now am most grateful, for life is most generous … – I have to live today like it is the best day in the world — & I now have the wisdom to know that it is.”

She was known to stuff envelopes with drawings, philosophy, calligraphy, rambling love letters, and poetry, usually delivering them by bicycle in the early hours of morning to friends, loved ones, and even strangers. She was an apparition in an overcoat and described as a “quiet observer of life, a thinker and a humanist.”

1946 – New Orleans, USA
2014 – Victoria, BC

Exhibition Dates for this series.


Grison, Brian. “Rachel Berman Recent Work.” Vie des Arts, vol. 52, no. 214, 2009, pp. 2, 17.

“Rachel Berman: 1968 – 2014.” Queen’s Quarterly, vol. 121, no. 3, 2014, pp. 422 – 441.

“Rachel Berman: The Struggle with Self.” Queen’s Quarterly, vol. 129, no. 2, pp. 282 – 289.