Portrait of a marriage

Portrait of a marriage

Two local artists, two computers, two styles, one shared life

Bernice and Mishel Greenberg stand by a painting she made 21 years ago, based on two women she saw in Meah Shearim in Israel. Photos by James Janoff

When Bernice Silberman Greenberg was 20 years old, in 1942, back at home on Long Island after two years in heaven – actually, two years at the Tyler School of Fine Art in Philadelphia, but she thought of the two places, school and heaven, as synonymous – her grandmother had just the guy for her.

“My grandmother went to his brother’s wedding, and she told me that she’d met an artist whose name was Michel,” Greenberg said.

“I was so intrigued! I thought that he would wear a beret and hold a palette,” she said.

Actually, the young man’s name was Mishel. Mishel Greenberg. He was three years older than she was, and was also an artist. They were married the next year.

Now, almost 70 years later, great grandparents, long retired from their jobs, Bernice and Mishel Greenberg of Teaneck are still active artists. Both have changed from hard media to computer art; each sits at a computer for long hours, six days a week, working separately but together, the way they always have as they continue to grow and change.

Bernice grew up in Lynbrook, New York, as “the only Jewish kid in the school,” she said. “My art began when I was a very little girl. The only way I had any kind of reputation in my elementary school was the way that I could draw.

“All the teachers would ask me to draw things on the blackboard for them, and that was my only entrée into the community.”

She majored in art in high school, and then her parents let her go to Tyler, which was part of Temple University, for two years, summoning her back home when World War II began.

Her family belonged to a Conservative shul, but her parents were not particularly observant.

Mishel Greenberg came from a much more actively Jewish background. His mother was born in Jerusalem; one of her ancestors, Joel Solomon, was one of the founders of Petach Tikvah, one of the first Jewish settlements outside the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City. His father was American, born to a chasidic family. His grandfather used to go to what was then called Palestine fairly regularly, and took his son with him; it was through this travel that the marriage between Greenberg’s parents was arranged.

His mother came to the United States; “she spoke English very well, but didn’t know a lot of the nuances,” her son reported. “My name had been Mi-ka-el until I went to nursery school. Someone must have seen a French movie and decided that my name should have been Michel,” but didn’t know how to spell it properly. “I’ve been stuck with Mishel ever since.”

He studied at Cooper Union, graduating in 1940.

Because Greenberg had spent part of his adolescence working in the Brooklyn Navy Yard; although he was drafted into the Navy, he was not shipped off to war until the very end. Instead, “I was working on some technical processes that were very new,” he said. On his first wedding anniversary, he was sent to Chicago, where the Navy maintains a training center, “and then the war was over,” Bernice Greenberg said. As was typical of young families then, the Greenbergs lived with their in-laws, eventually moving into a veterans’ co-op in Bayside, Queens, as the entire area frantically built housing for the floods of returning servicemen.

Both Greenbergs were able to use the art that they loved in their professional lives. She went to Teachers’ College at Columbia University for her bachelors and to Hofstra University for her master’s, both in arts education; and she taught art in public schools for 25 years. “My profession was teaching, and my love was art,” she said.

He worked in package and display design, mostly in cosmetics, producing work for such clients as Revlon and Cheeseborough-Ponds. It was the 1960s, the Mad Men era; his work was slick and sleek and iconic.

In 1960, “I had this vague notion that you could take the art that was then mostly on easels, painting, and move it into the future.”

He had been a painter, and he dabbled in sculpture, but those media no longer satisfied him.

The art of the future would be dynamic, he believed, but how could it be made to move? He realized that he could “take the elements of art, which are color, line, shape, and turn them into components.

“If music has been defined as sound ordered by time, what I was trying to do was visual art ordered by time. I wanted to create an art that isn’t static, but continuous. It’s like a movie; it has a plot, but the plot is all about aesthetic relationships.”

It is a serious understatement to say that technology has changed a great deal since the early 1960s. Greenberg’s first attempts toward his new vision of art necessarily were different than those he works on today, when he creates five-minutes videos that he posts online. (To find his work, go to YouTube and search for Mishel Greenberg.)

“My switch to this technology was a gradual process,” he said. “I had the advice of engineer friends, and I created optical devices to manipulate colors in sequence. Later, I had a motion picture camera, and I took stop-motion pictures. Then, after a while, when computers became sophisticated enough to have good graphics and inexpensive enough to be affordable, I got one.

“That was about 10 years ago, and that’s when I started working on what I’m doing today, developing ideas and examples of this intangible idea I call animated abstraction.”

His videos, each about five minutes long, show shapes and colors moving, flowing, constantly changing, morphing in a way that is surprising, somehow logical, and mesmerizing to watch. It is set to music, but the music, he explained, comes later; it is background to the visuals, just as in film music is the background to the action.

Greenberg finds that explaining his art is difficult. “It’s different enough that I have problems finding an analogy to use as a simile,” he said. “Abstract colors, shapes, textures move and become ballet, dancing to an abstract beat.”

Bernice Greenberg’s art, unlike that of her husband, did not change radically as she shifted media. During all the years that she had taught, she kept taking art classes in a wide range of techniques and media, including painting, sculpture, and jewelry-making.

Eventually, she ran out of room.

“My studio downstairs is filled with art,” she said. “There was no room for anything new. And then, miraculously, the computer came along.

“In about 1995, my son bought me an Epson. It never worked. But then Corel came out with a program, mainly for commercial art, and then it developed the Number 12 program for painters. Then I had everything I needed.

“It is an extraordinary program and I bent it to my needs.”

Once she had the tools, she worked to develop them. She had painted still lives and landscapes but concentrated mostly on people, often using her family as her subjects. Now she concentrates more on flowers. “I don’t do the same things most people do on the computer,” she said. “Many people use it for very dramatic effects, or for montages of photographs, but I decided to use it as a painting tool.

“In the last three years I have managed to make the monitor my easel, and the painter program gives me my tools,” she said.

Just as they have the same love, art, and use the same tool, the computer, but use it differently, so too do they approach other parts of life.

For both of them, family is of overwhelming importance. They have 8 grandchildren and 9 great-grandchildren, whom they adore; as much time as they give to art, they give family as much if not even more.

They had moved from Queens to New Hyde Park on Long Island when their children were young, and lived there happily until 10 years ago. Then, their children, all of whom live in Bergen County, persuaded them to move here.

“It was a big decision to make,” Bernice Greenberg said. “I had never seen such a town! Men walking around with kippas on their heads, women with long skirts and hats. But this town accepted me.”

“We are different personalities,” Mishel Greenberg said. “I’m a doer, Mishel is a thinker,” his wife agreed. “We are very lucky.”

“Our approach to religion is different,” she added. Although her husband is a daily shul-goer – they belong to Beth Aaron – she rarely goes, even on Shabbat.

“I am not really an Orthodox Jew,” she said. “But I follow the traditions. One thing that makes my Saturday a Shabbat is having a learning group. There is a group of women – it’s any size from 8 to 14 – we discuss parts of the Bible. This has been going on for years.”

Their children, too, reflect a range of Jewish life. Their daughter, Ellen Friedman, “is very frum,” Bernice said. “My husband is a little less frum. I have a son who is modern Orthodox, and a son who is Conservative.”

Now they prepare to celebrate the start of their eighth decade together, pursuing the same passion, in the same house, at separate computers, entirely separate but entirely part of one complete design.

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