The art of living

Of all things great and small, flowers are painter Bess Bergman’s favorite subjects for her canvases.

Maybe it’s because of the petals’ delicate shapes and shades of color. Maybe it’s the time-honored tradition of the still life.

Or perhaps it’s just the fragile nature of flowers. Blossoms fade and die so quickly. It’s all a bit ironic though, considering Bergman celebrates her 102nd birthday on April 30 at San Francisco’s Jewish Home, where the Boston native has lived for the last few years.

Though she has passed the century mark, Bergman is still in full flower herself. Not even a recent leg fracture and the macular degeneration that has left her nearly blind slow her down much.

Her painting hobby came about late in life … for average people. She took it up at age 62 after the death of her husband, and now she’s been at it for four decades. “I don’t know how I would have gotten through without painting,” she says.

She first put brush to canvas while living in Los Angeles, initially as a casual pastime shared with friends. “We’d get together and do watercolors about four times a week.”

Since living in San Francisco’s Menorah Park and more recently the Jewish Home, Bergman has had the opportunity to work with art teachers and develop her skills.

So impressive is her energy and artistic passion, her caregivers at the Home figured she would make the perfect guinea pig for a newly launched program called Videolink.

Funded by a grant from the Kanbar, Charitable Trust of the Jewish Community Endowment Fund, Videolink uses digital media as a form of therapy and entertainment for Home residents. To make the film, Videolink brought in Melissa Elbirt, a young Academy of Art graduate born the year Bergman turned 79.

Over several weeks, Elbirt followed Bergman around with a digital movie camera. Painting, shmoozing, talking about her life — Elbirt caught it all on camera.

“She was a little surprised that anyone would want to interview her,” says Elbirt, “but it’s easy to see in her face how important her work is to her. It’s amazing to watch her handle the flowers.”

Sitting quietly, brush in hand, Bergman thinks back on a faded past growing up in her hometown of Chelsea, Mass. In those days, there were more horses on the street than cars, and the president was named Roosevelt. Theodore, that is.

“I had a very good childhood,” she recalls. “We had a nice house with a green lawn outside of South Boston. The Jewish community was very strong. You knew all your neighbors.”

Bergman remembers dreaming about fashion design with her sister, who loved clothes as much as she did. She also loved ballroom dancing and would head into Boston regularly to hit the cotillion circuit. “We used to polish the floor,” she says with a laugh.

Later she and her husband Merrill moved to California to raise a family. She stayed at home with her two daughters while her husband made a living in the automobile industry and real estate profession. “Women didn’t work in those days,” she says. “We did the cooking and the cleaning.”

Life in Los Angeles was good in the postwar years, but when her husband died unexpectedly, Bergman faced a crisis. Having been sheltered and cared for throughout her life, at age 62 she had to take charge.

She learned to drive, learned to paint and became an active grandmother (and later, a great-grandmother). As the years passed, she relocated to the Bay Area to be near family, moving to the Menorah Park senior residence.

Over the years, she has been drawn back to the Jewish rituals of her youth. “I love Jewish music,” she says, “and I go to the temple.”

Nowadays, the indestructible Bergman is making new friends every day. Friends like 23-year-old Melissa Elbirt.

“So far we’re getting along great,” says the young filmmaker. “She’s a sweet, aware person. She seems really calm and at ease.”

As for Bergman, after the filming stops she plans to keep on keeping on, painting, sharing and living life as fully as she can.

“I’m so afraid I’ll miss something,” she says, adding, “I’m fortunate.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.