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Jane Bernhardt: Called Back to the Heart

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A multitalented creative force who has followed her beliefs and ideals, rather than the path of easy fame. Bernhardt began as an actor, and made a very good living in the 1970s appearing in dozens of TV commercials. Since leaving that trade, she's put her creative energies into a series of performance and art projects exploring profound human experiences -- including the clients of a soup kitchen, dissidents in the Soviet Union, and survivors of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. The latter is a multimedia presentation called the Hibakusha Peace Project. 

 

 

"Hibakusha" is the Japanese term for survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; its literal meaning is "bomb-affected people." The Project involves paintings of hibakusha, their stories performed by Bernhardt, with music by Greta Bro, a musician who was her creative partner in the project.  

 

The project began in 2003, when Bernhardt heard about US plans to develop tactical nuclear weapons. She was appalled at her government's willingness to bring the devastating power of nuclear weapons into the arsenal of standard warfare.  

 

She traveled to Japan in August of that year, spending two and a half weeks interviewing hibakusha and capturing their likenesses in a series of collage portraits. After she returned, she crafted their stories and poems into a performance piece. The final work can be presented in a number of forms: a simple art exhibit, a solo performance, or a multimedia piece with music, dance, and portraits. "People think it will be ghastly," she says. "but it's really quite beautiful. The piece goes through darkness into a vision of healing." 

 

In describing the purpose of the Hibakusha Peace Project, Bernhardt seems to be summarizing everything she did from 1983 until then: 

 

"My premise is that, if we don't get who we are, then we can't live here as human beings. If we don't get the stories of the Hibakusha, the people who have lived through the unthinkable, if we don't hear them, if we don't get what happens to humanity when it's burnt alive, if we don't allow our hearts to be softened by the anguish or tears of these stories and the faces that bear the imprint, then how are we going to be human and live like human beings?" 


In the process of crafting a series of works that communicate on such a profound level, Bernhardt has entered those deep levels herself: a total immersion in the lives of others. It's a taxing process, and this was never more true than in the Hibakusha Peace Project. The cumulative toll brought on a persistent illness that prompted her to turn in a new direction: "I have gone inwards in the sense that the still small voice, the calling, has been 'Be still, be still, be still.'"  


The rest of Bernhardt's story is in my book, including her other creative projects and the unexpected endeavor that grew out of her need to "be still." 
 
Read excerpts from my interviews with Bernhardt, about her early success as an actor in TV commercials, and about some of her solo theatrical and artistic works.  
 
Visit Bernhardt's website to learn more about her work, see examples of her art, and read about her recently-published book.  

Contact me at john (at) johnswalters (dot) com