Provocative, bold, and personal performances display the nuances of daily life and the realities of being human in a way that creates a kind of hope for audiences as they watch pieces unfold.
Mary Grace Bernard is an inspiring performer who uses pieces of herself to bring attention and hope to others. Not only is she a performance artist, she is also a scholar, pursuing her master’s in art history at the University of Denver. Her interest in art, and eventually performance art, begins in her childhood. She was born in New Orleans, and at age 6 she was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis not long after her brother passed away. Though she enjoyed painting from a young age, art took a periphery position in Mary Grace Bernard’s life for many years.
“I would paint flowers—I started doing that when I was 8. There’s this picture of tiny me next to this huge canvas, and I am smaller than the canvas that I painted. Growing up, I always donated those paintings to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation to raise money. I did that for a while, and then when I graduated, I did this 65 roses thing. 65 Roses is a motto for cystic fibrosis, because they sound similar. I did a work every day for 65 days and then sold them at the end of that 65th day to raise money for the CFF.”
As her perspective shifted, so did the way Bernard chose to make an impact with this work.
“Now, I’m very anti-medical model, because it raises money, but it also raises pity. It’s weird asking people to raise money to cure cystic fibrosis, that whole of idea of curing disability and erasing disability. So I don’t really do that anymore.
“For the past two years, I have been designing this coloring book, the Cystic Fibrosis Coloring Book. It has coloring pages on one side and instructions about what you’re coloring on the other. That’s been an over-two-year project, and I just got the printed copies in, so I have 40 boxes of coloring books at my house. I’ll give most to hospitals so kids have something to do.”
In a course at University of Denver, Bernard was introduced to artists who use their body as both subjects and objects and this, she says, was her “coming out at as a performance artist.”
Her first performance was her breathing treatment, inspired by artists’ focus on pain and how to deal with pain and disability. Through that lens, she established herself in this lineage of performance artists grappling with how to deal with the often “dreary” reality of chronic illness and (dis)ability.
“For this performance, I did my breathing treatment that shows the technological side and reveals the process that is supposed to fix my pain. But also just revealing my body. Because the other artists reveal their bodies and objects, but also as subjects.”
A lineage of performance artists with disabilities continues to inform Bernard’s perspective on theoretical approaches to work. For her MA thesis, she studied the work of Bob Flanagan and his partner Sheree Rose and spent time in his archives in L.A.
“All of us are also blurring the boundaries between art and life. In that class, we were studying performance art in connection to technology and the body, and it just made sense to me that you’re revealing your experience out of real life. I think it is just more powerful to share your experience in actuality with your body rather than some perfect artwork.”
Her second performance took place in one of her classes and involved drinking multiple protein shakes, part of the reality of gaining weight for those living with cystic fibrosis.
“With that one, I was trying to blur boundaries between public and private and how illness doesn’t remain in those private areas.”
Bernard said that part of what makes performance art so impactful is what lingers with the audience afterwards.
“I blame this on my Leo-ness; I do like being the center of attention, but in this [case] I am trying to get something important across and make my viewers feel something important. I think in performance, I am taking an activist role, or I want to. I’m taking on feminist theory, disability theory, queer theory, crip theory—all of those things.
“I should advocate for more than that. And I feel like the best way to get people to do stuff is to get them to feel. I don’t even know what that feeling is. It is some kind of emotion or feeling. I am not trying to make other people feel empathy. Just feel something. I think that can be powerful and allow other people to see the world a bit differently. When you’re looking at a piece of art in a gallery, like an object, you may feel something, but when an actual body is involved, it’s more intense.”
Her performance in January involved intense, private moments mixed with intense, personal moments. The performance took place in “Mary Grace’s living room,” an intimate space where she shared private thoughts while viewers were required to witness the entire performance through their phone or camera lens and asked to share the recording on Instagram or YouTube.
The living room was open for the full two weeks, offering space for visitors to come and read books and see intimate parts of Bernard’s personal space. The gallery is located on DU’s campus, which provided an accessible place for Bernard to display her work but also limited the flow of visitors.
“I think a real performance art space is lacking In Denver. We really need that. There are a lot of performers here in Denver, and there is not really a space for it. I find it difficult to show artworks about disability; I found a lot of barriers and pushback there. I think people still in the older art generation view disabled art as outsider art. And like, what does that even mean? I have had some pushback at DU of me wanting to do and study disability art and people being like, ‘Make sure it’s good art.’”
Her upcoming May performance will be a digital exhibit arguing for the similarities of digital and performance. The show will be titled The Digital Embodiment of Sick Witches and Sacred Crips and will be an altar of sorts to her mentors and the artists she’s studied and is inspired by.