Work of FDNY pioneer on display at Brooklyn federal court
Brenda Berkman started out as an attorney, and then became a pioneering firefighter after her 1982 lawsuit successfully challenged the FDNY’s hiring practices and led to the first female firefighter to be hired. Now she’s Brenda Berkman the artist.
Berkman’s gallery was unveiled in the Charles P. Sifton Gallery in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York in Downtown Brooklyn last Wednesday.
Not coincidentally, Berkman’s successful lawsuit was made possible by the late Sifton, who helped to shift the landscape for female firefighters both in New York City and across the country. So much so that Berkman herself quit the law to peruse firefighting proceeding the decision of the case.
“People were saying, ‘well Berkman’s a lawyer and she doesn’t really want to be a firefighter, she’s just a burning feminist,’” Berkman recalled. “So judge Sifton put me on the stand under oath and I had to testify that If I won my case, I would quit my job as a lawyer and become a firefighter, which I didn’t have a problem with, I wanted to do it.”
Berkman served the FDNY for 25 years, was 9/11 first responder and eventually rose to the rank of captain. She worked meticulously through her career to promote diversity in the organization and still mentors female and other marginalized groups of firefighters to this day.
“I really believed and would still believe that the fire department benefits from people coming into the organization with a wide variety of experience and backgrounds and abilities.”
Her pivot to art two years after her retirement in 2006 was something completely out of her element.
“I loved firefighting. I was devoted to it and to serving my community,” Berkman said. “I was devoted to my fellow firefighters, learning the job and doing the best I could. I loved every aspect of it. When I retired I had no idea what I was going to do next and I thought, I always wanted to make something. I had always been interested in art but never had any opportunity or time to do it.”
10 years later, Berkman’s relative novelty in the art world is nearly unfounded. Her primary medium is stone lithography, an ancient practice of printing images or text onto stone. She’s influenced directly by Japanese and French printmaking.
This is evident through her most recent series, “Thirty Six Views,” which takes cues from Hiroshige’s “One Hundred Famous Views of Edo,” Hokusai’s “Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji” and Henri Riviere’s “Thirty Six Views of the Eiffel Tower.”
Her work features a variety of themes but largely focuses on female empowerment, political art and family. She’s precise, careful and inclusive. All vestiges of habits from her time as a firefighter, she says.
This past Wednesday, Berkman’s lithography series “Thirty Six Views of One World Trade Center” was elegantly displayed in the Charles P. Sifton gallery at the Eastern District Federal Courthouse in downtown Brooklyn. The gallery is aptly named after Sifton who presided over Berkman’s landmark case 35 years prior.
“It’s not often that one event encapsulates 40 years of life quite like tonight does for me,” Berkman said. “It’s really hard for me not to be emotional in this space because there’s so much history here for me.”
Her series is a depiction of the construction of One World Trade Center through 36 different lithographs. Each lithograph displays a unique and sharp perspective of the iconic building. It not only serves as a connection to Berkman’s friends and colleagues whom she lost in the tragedy, but as a way for Berkman herself to cope with the events.
“It took me 10 years before I did anything in my art that was related to my experience with 9/11 and that was what resulted with those self-portraits over there. After I was volunteering down at the World Trade Center Memorial with the 9/11 tribute center, leading towards the memorial, I was watching the number One [World Trade Center] rise up. I believe that the rebuilding of the One World Trade Center is testimony to the resilience of the human spirit. That’s what I hope you see in my art.”
Berkman’s lifetime of resilience is uncanny. Whether it was as a lawyer fighting for inclusion, as a firefighter fighting for her city, or as an artist fighting for peace, it’s almost unbelievable.
“Leaving a desk job to go to a job where you can get killed any day without notice, you don’t do that as a prank,” exclaimed her lawyer on the case Jonathan Richman.
The exhibit will be featured in the lobby of the Eastern District Court, located at 225 Cadman Plaza East through June 21.
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