By Lydia Gans, Special to the Planet
Thursday June 04, 2009
Claire Burch died May 21 at the age of 84. A tiny woman with a video
camera always in hand, she was a familiar figure in People's Park and
on Telegraph Avenue.
Since coming to Berkeley from New York 30 years ago, she shot
thousands of hours of footage and produced dozens of videos of
well-known and ordinary people, showing their struggles and
successes, joys and pains.
She cared especially about people on the fringes, people who are
homeless or mentally ill, young people living on the streets with
only a dog for a steady companion. She would spend hours recording
homeless people telling of their struggles to survive. She filmed
homeless encampments and wacky rituals performed by street people on
the Avenue or in People's Park. People knew they could trust her to
convey their stories with compassion. She once said to me, "If I've
done anything in my life that has any value, I think it's that maybe
I have managed to give more of a voice to the people who I call
street survivors." She wrote several books about homeless people in
Berkeley, adding her poetry and pictures to their own words.
Claire was a prolific artist and composer, poet and filmmaker. Her
creative drive appeared at an early age. She told me, "I remember my
parents saying turn the light out. I was one of those little kids who
they'd say 'go out and play' and I'd hang out in the hallway, reading
my little book. My poor parents wanted me to be a lawyer. They wanted
me to do something practical. Here I was scribbling away. Painting
got added to the mix before I can even remember. ... And it
escalated, it never went away. It got more and more intense."
It seemed that her parents accepted her choice. "When I was 12 I got
a scholarship to a 'life' class. They had models. And they had a
naked man which was very exciting. My folks didn't realize. They knew
on Saturdays I'd go to this drawing class, but I never told them what
was so interesting about it. It was a great big chunk of my life."
She said later on in life, about writing and painting in bad times,
"it keeps the demons away." And there were demons: the death of
child, the psychiatric illness of an adopted daughter, health
problems and near blindness in her last years.
She could be very funny and loved unconventional people and
unconventional lifestyles. She was born in New York and lived there
except for a period in the suburbs, which she hated. She once told me
about it: "I felt like a fish out of water, I knew I didn't belong.
... (in) Great Neck, Long Island, where people had wall-to-wall
carpets all the way to the ceiling." When her husband died she moved
with her daughters into a housing complex in Manhattan that was home
to many artists. "It was one of the best times in my life," she told me.
Thirty-six years ago she met Mark Weiman at a conference on Jung and
Hesse in Switzerland. They have been together ever since. Mark says
of himself, "I was her publisher and paramour." Claire would have
loved that! "Domestic partner" sounds so pedestrian!
Claire was incredibly productive. She did thousands of drawings and
paintings. Mark tries to define her style: "She was a contemporary
artist working in a variety of realistic and abstract forms." She
particularly liked collage which she used a lot. Her work is widely
collected and is held in many private collections and museums.
Music, even more than art, was a big element in her life. She told of
falling down a flight of stairs and sustaining brain injury, after
which she began hearing music in her head. So she learned to write
music and wrote hundreds of songs. She produced a musical play which
had a successful off-Broadway run. Jose Quintero, the well known
interpreter of Eugene O'Neill, was engaged to direct another of her
She and Mark moved to Berkeley in 1978, where she continued painting
and drawing. She had started some filming in New York, even made a
little feature film, but here she got into video in earnest. And as
methods and technology improved, she eagerly took up each new format.
Mark describes how she started with the big, clumsy cameras, then
Hi-8 and more and more compact and versatile video equipment, always
keeping up with state-of-the-art technology. Mark says, "She always
was recording, every single day of her life ... in some form, an hour
or two of reality. A writer would make notes in their mind and then
write it downshe embraced the technology. It was there to use."
From time to time she had showings of her films in the Bay Area.
Recently she showed People's Park, Then and Now at a benefit for Food
Not Bombs. She showed a film about James Baldwinwho was a friend
from her early years in New Yorkat a Berkeley film festival. Two
years ago the Berkeley Unitarian Fellowship sponsored an evening of her films.
She also wrote numerous books on serious subjects such as
homelessness and mental illness, and a wonderful book of poetry,
Where Never is Forever, that Mark recently published. In a hilarious
book, Charles Darwin in Cyberspace, Emma Wedgewood has a wacky
exchange of letters with her husband Charles Darwin, wildly
hallucinating while tripping on some moldy bread pudding. She flips
back and forth between 19th century England, where she is demanding
child support for a very odd child and accusing her husband of having
an affair, and 20th century America, where she is trying to get on
welfare and thoroughly confusing the social worker. But even with all
the silliness, Claire conveyed an understanding of critical issues of
mental illness and dealing with the welfare systemand even a bit of
Charles Darwin's scientific work.
Claire's life was an inspiration. She was deeply committed to the
people and causes she cared about. All who knew her appreciate not
only what she did but the human being that she was.
In addition to Mark, Claire leaves behind her two daughters (who were
her best friends), her grandchildren, her sister and brothers,
sons-in-law, and many other family members and friends who adored her.