Floral artwork catches world traveler’s fancy

The Pilgrim Place Festival may be half a year away, but Nijiko Bergh is ahead of the game. Ms. Bergh spends much of her time with paintbrush in hand at Pilgrim Place’s Pendleton Arts and Crafts Center, busy painting floral-embellished candlesticks, step stools and plates for this fall’s fair.

Ms. Bergh doesn’t like to rush the artistic process.

“She’s very precise and very accurate,” said fellow painter Nancy Reed. “I’m still learning but, Nijiko, she’s the master.”

Ms. Bergh is known to friends and family equally for her painting and her jovial smile and spirit, fitting for a woman whose name translates to “Rainbow” in Japanese. She cherishes the time spent bent over her desk at the Pilgrim Place art center, finally getting the opportunity to put a lifelong hobby into full-time, professional practice.

While she has dabbled in embroidery, oil paints and sketches, her passion lies in the intricate art of rosemaling, an ancient Norwegian folk art characterized by sweeping scrolls and colorful rose patterns.

“I love the symmetry of the design, the flowers and the scrolls,” she said, pointing to the design elements typical of the Telemark region of Norway. “It speaks to me.”

With its vivid color and floral patterns, rosemaling was created in the 17th century as a way to lend vibrance to the home during the dark and cold winter season in Norway. Ms. Bergh was first exposed to rosemaling as a young adult because many of the missionaries in her native Japan hailed from Norway. She recalls seeing the festive folk art hanging in their homes, but it wasn’t until decades later that she was formally introduced to the art form or even heard the term “rosemaling.”

Though relatively new to the practice—she only just began in 2001 under the stewardship of the late Gerry Elliott—Ms. Bergh immediately felt at home with the paintbrush in her grasp. Humbly, Ms. Bergh claims the art form likely comes naturally to her because of all the brush writing classes she took as a schoolgirl in Japan. Her husband, Earl Berg, insists she was predisposed to being an artist long before her school days.

Ms. Bergh was born in South Korea, then a Japanese colony. It was through her father, an elementary school teacher and artist, that she was first exposed to the art world, often watching him as he painted simple objects around their home. Though she never received a formal tutorial from her father, she learned from watching him paint, applying his techniques in her personal doodles and sketches. After World War II, her family and all the Japanese colonists were forced to return to their home country. Ms. Bergh was then 10 years old. Because they were only allowed to take what could they could carry, Ms. Bergh’s doodles and her father’s paintings and supplies were all left behind.

When Ms. Bergh was 13, her father was diagnosed with a terminal kidney illness. Instead of focusing in on his disease, her father began devoting his time to religion, often taking his daughter to the local Episcopal Church. Though she enjoyed reading the Old Testament for its stories, it wasn’t until her father’s death 10 years later that she embraced Christianity as her own.

It was during yearly trips to church camps that Ms. Berg first saw Norwegian folk art (without knowing it was rosemaling) and first met her husband, Earl Bergh, an American missionary stationed in Japan. It was she who asked him on their first date as a thank you for sending her a magazine article he thought she would enjoy. They dated for a year before Mr. Bergh asked her to marry him. Less forward than she had been at the start of their courtship, she refused him 3 times before saying yes because she was nervous about the responsibility of being a missionary’s wife. More than 50 years later, the Berghs remain happily married.

The Berghs were constant companions throughout Mr. Bergh’s missionary career. Ms. Bergh played an integral role in helping her husband build up several churches throughout Japan. During these years, Ms. Bergh also became a mother, first with the birth of a son, Steve, and a year later a daughter, Debbie.

In between the duties of being a missionary’s wife and a mother, Ms. Bergh indulged in her favorite hobbies, reading the Bible and art. Her children’s nap time gave her the chance to brush up on her skills, lending her the opportunity to sketch her subjects as they slept peacefully. When they awoke, she patiently tucked the pages away and resumed her motherly duties.

The Berghs retired to Pilgrim Place in 1996, but even upon retirement Ms. Bergh was kept busy. She quickly enrolled herself in an English as a second language class through the Claremont Adult School to work on her English. Though she admits she didn’t have a firm grasp of the English language, the transition from the United States to Japan was not a difficult one for her.

Many people say coming [to the United States] is a culture shock, but Ms. Bergh insists it wasn’t for her as she already had to deal with the big change moving to rural Japan after WWII. “That was culture shock.”

The experience of moving to a foreign country was further eased by her pleasure in educating herself about the different backgrounds of her classmates: “I learned so many things from so many different countries,” Ms. Bergh said. “It was eye-opening for me.”

Ms. Bergh got the chance to further her newly-broadened cultural background when her neighbor, Gerry Elliott, invited her to take part in Ms. Elliott’s rosemaling class. Equipped with a design from a book and a small plate given to her by Ms. Elliott, Ms. Bergh set to work on her first rosemaling piece and hasn’t put the paintbrush down for long since. She has even won awards along the way—including a blue ribbon at the LA County Fair in 2004. Mr. Bergh is pleased to see his wife busy as a “part-time worker” even in retirement.

“[As a pastor’s wife], she had little chance to do anything else,” Mr. Bergh said. “She’s happy to be doing what she loves now that she has the spare time. She really enjoys her artwork.”

Hours at a time may pass, in fact even months at a time, as she focuses on one or 2 pieces, but she insists the intricacies of rosemaling and the continued challenge of mastering the shading always keep her work fresh. With every new plate, each candle holder, comes something new.

“I’m always learning,” she said.

—Beth Hartnett



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