Robin Bernstein's "Beauty and Terror" exhibit will include "I Do Not Say You Are Lying, I Say I Do Not Believe You" (right).
Robin Bernstein's "Beauty and Terror" exhibit will include "I Do Not Say You Are Lying, I Say I Do Not Believe You" (right).

Robin Bernstein uses vibrant fiber art to fight Holocaust ignorance

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Growing up in St. Louis, Robin Bernstein received a Jewish education, but it glossed over the Holocaust. So in 2009 when her son Asher got involved with The Next Chapter program — a program offered by the San Francisco-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services Holocaust Center that matches students with a Holocaust survivor to interview and document their story — she sought more information online.

The top search results on Google horrified her: They were websites promoting Holocaust denial theories.

“It was really frightening to me to realize that this was a current problem and possibly on the rise,” Bernstein, 63, told J.

An artist who has worked for over 40 years in various mediums, from oil painting to wood carving, Bernstein decided to respond to the disinformation she found online through fiber art. Her first piece was an image of the Berlin skyline at night with a large rose-colored swastika in the center and ominous train tracks in the foreground. One piece turned into two, then, over the next 13 years, she completed a total of 21 pieces evoking the Holocaust and its painful history.

Between 2016 and 2019, Bernstein shared several of the pieces in Emeryville, Novato and Oakland. This month and next, parts of her “Beauty and Terror” exhibit will be on display at Transmission Gallery Oakland and Mission College Vargas Gallery in Santa Clara. Then in January, 18 pieces will hang together in the lobby of the Bankhead Theater at Livermore Valley Arts. (She chose 18 because it represents “chai,” meaning “life” in Hebrew.)

The colorful works are constructed from thousands of tiny strings Bernstein has meticulously cut and pressed into a mixture of wax, Vaseline and powdered pine resin, which acts as an adhesive. She learned this technique, which she said was developed by the Huichol Indigenous people of Mexico, on a trip to Oaxaca.

“It’s intense but extremely satisfying,” Bernstein said of the process, noting that each piece took four to five months to complete (the largest is six feet in height). “After about six hours, your eyes are crossing and your fingers are getting sore.”

The pieces will hang with no glass to protect them, allowing for a better view of the individual strings. Bernstein sees the strings as representing “the multitudes of people who lost their lives” in the Holocaust.

She sourced the yarn from flea markets, antique shops and even eBay. “I’m always looking for skeins of old wool from Europe,” she said. “The colors are different, the texture is different, the manufacturing processes were different than they are now.”

Many of the pieces in “Beauty and Terror” depict moments of suffering, from Nazi raids of European Jewish ghettos to a death march. But Bernstein also includes redemptive stories. For example, she created a double portrait of Lorenzo Perrone and Primo Levi. Perrone was an Italian bricklayer at Auschwitz who saved Levi’s life by smuggling him bread and soup every day for five months. (Levi survived Auschwitz and went on to write about Peronne in his 1947 memoir, “If This Is a Man.”)

In order to further her goal of educating the public about the Holocaust, Bernstein wrote descriptive text contextualizing each piece. “I want people to understand what the piece is about,” she said. “You might be drawn to a particular piece because of the colors or the shapes, but the history is there for you. The text is an essential, critical part of the art.”

A resident of Canyon, in the East Bay, Bernstein taught art at Modesto Junior College and at a private Montessori school in Oakland. Her husband, Ken Kalman, is a sculptor who designs and makes furniture and lamps. They have a daughter, Rachel Kalman, who is a painter in Oregon. (Their son, Asher, chose a different path; he is a corporate attorney in Manhattan.)

After getting her MFA in drawing and painting from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1989, Bernstein collaborated with a friend in making elaborate and colorful gold leaf ketubahs (Jewish marriage contracts) for local couples. “Beauty and Terror” is her first exhibit with an explicitly Jewish theme.

“It gives me a lot of satisfaction to be able to bring the history of the Holocaust to audiences who might not know about it otherwise,” she said. “People truly have no idea how brutal and how horrible [it was], and how will you ever know?”

“Beauty and Terror” will be on view in two parts, at Transmission Gallery Oakland (Sept. 22-Nov. 5) and at Mission College Vargas Gallery (Oct. 3-Nov. 8). All 18 pieces will be shown together at Livermore Valley Arts in January. Bernstein will give a talk at Transmission Gallery Oakland at 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 15.

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Emma Goss.(Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
Emma Goss

Emma Goss is a J. staff writer. She is a Bay Area native and an alum of Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School and Kehillah Jewish High School. Emma also reports for NBC Bay Area. Follow her on Twitter @EmmaAudreyGoss.