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Your Story: Gambling on a career as an artist, and now as a teacher

Jerry Berta teaching art at the Ann Arbor Public Library in 2002.
Ann Arbor Public Library
Jerry Berta teaching art at the Ann Arbor Public Library in 2002.

Making money as an artist can be tough, but Jerry Berta made a good living selling his clay pieces for decades.

He and his wife Madeline Kaczmarczyk, also an artist, weathered the Midwestern recession of the early 1980’s and even built a house in Rockford, Michigan where they still live. Berta said they felt like rich people. They made enough money to buy and sell a couple of restaurants along the way.

“It was so easy when we started out. We started out on a street in Ann Arbor,” Berta said. “We set up, we sold stuff, and we were in business! Now, you don’t know what’s going to happen. Even successful artists, they’re having a hard time making it.”

They later sent two kids to ivy-league colleges. But when the 2008 recession hit things changed.

“It had been happening slowly. You could just feel it,” Berta said. “People were being really tight with their money, and art, you don’t really need art. It’s changed, and I have adapted.”

Berta and Kaxzmarczyk both took part time jobs teaching art. That led Berta to decide to switch careers entirely. He wants to be an art teacher and is getting his teaching certificate.

Berta is 60. He laughs about being the oldest student in his classes, and older than most of the professors too. He’s even upbeat about looking for a job in an education landscape where budget cuts and shrinking art programs are a reality.

“I was at the art faculty party and was talking to the woman who teaches art education classes,” Berta explained. “I said, ‘I would love to be an art teacher but it seems so uncertain.’ And she said, every one of my teachers has gotten jobs.” Berta laughs again. “I signed up four days later!”

Berta still sells his pieces at art fairs across the Midwest. Lately, sales have been picking up. Part of that might be the improving economy, but Berta has also changed his art to appeal to a younger audience. He’s making digital art now, giant computer generated canvasses that look like paintings.

Being flexible and ready for anything is something Berta thinks art education is critical for.

“I read somewhere you might have five different places to work, or six. My generation you had one place to work. So you’ve got to creatively work your way through life and be flexible.”

Berta and Kaxzmarczyk will have a booth at the Ann Arbor art fair this coming week. Even if his digital art work takes off, Berta is committed to his new career choice. “Kids are just starvin’ for art. They don’t get enough of it,” Berta said. “I’ll still do my art. I can do it in the summer.”