"Black Jack Lady"


This drawing is the
sketch for Bert's print, "Suitors" pictured above.


I divide my time between science and art... - Bert Menco

Uncover process, time, and inspiration
in this interview with Bert Menco,
a neurobiologist and artist from Evanston, IL

Stephanie Hayden
ART of Chicago: 2/12/01- 2/18/01

SH: Bert, it has always intrigued me that your work as a neurobiologist at Northwestern during the day has left enough time to create such an extensive body of work. Tell me about your work during the days at your lab in Evanston.

BM: I came to the USA directly from The Netherlands at the end of 1982, an impromptu decision taken after having been employed for several years at the University of Utrecht. I intended to return to The Netherlands after a brief stay, but in the mean time I managed to obtain independent funding and am still here, now for more than 18 years.

I divide my time between science and art, the science part mainly being my day activity and the art part being my evening and weekend activities. Admittedly, sometimes this is hard, especially when I have deadlines, grant deadlines for science and exhibition deadlines for art.

My research concerns the cell biology of chemical senses, smell and taste, with the main objective being to understand the subcellular aspects of the sites where olfactory and gustatory (taste) chemosensory signal transduction takes place. I use mainly electron microscopy, a set of methods essential to determine these locations precisely. Such work is not only important for the understanding of basic mechanisms of smell and taste but also some of their pathologies. I've published about 65 articles in international peer-reviewed journals and by invitation. I have been independently funded for over 15 years, and am a recipient of some international awards (1a, b).

SH: How, if at all, does research in neurobiology affect your printmaking decisions?

BM: My art is insofar affected by my day-to-day activities, that the often-tedious discipline needed in research is also used in my art; reaching the final image is like a research goal. My drawings, prints, and paintings are quite elaborate; half a year's work on an image is no exception. However, my imagery is not related to my profession, at least not intentionally.

SH: You make drawings, paintings, and many different types of printworks. Which do you prefer, or do you use each to inspire the other?

BM: I think that I prefer drawing above all. Much of printmaking is drawing, albeit drawing on a piece of metal rather than a piece of paper. I just love to draw; maybe an addiction - a good one I believe.

SH: Puppets and masked people are recurring subjects in your work. Where does this come from?

BM: An old and somewhat romantic motif I feel attracted to. Hiding behind reality, masking yourself, or trying to show with the mask how you really feel. Maybe one's “normal” face is really a mask. The sad humor of Pulcinella and Harlequin (have you seen my car?). Of course, there are influences from the past in theatre and films like, “Les Enfants du Paradis” by Marcel Carné and Jaques Prévert (2), Jean-Antoine Watteau (3). However, foremost, what I see in my head steers my hands.

SH: Do you think your subject matter is particularly analytical? Can anyone really escape that?

BM: No, I see the subject matter of my art much more as intuitive than as analytical. Of course, its execution can be analytical. You have to solve problems, composition, color, and so on. Other artists may be much more analytical in their subject matter.

SH: You're in two books on the Chicago art scene, one by Ivy Sundell (4), and one by Rockport Publishers (5), tell me about the books and how you were chosen to be a contributor in both.

BM: I'm in Ivy's second book titled, Art Scene Chicago 2000 (4). The other book that included my work is called, “The Best of Printmaking. An International Collection” (5).

SH: You've got a great show up right now at the Elmhurst Art Museum (6). Tell me what this show is about and what you've done with the space you've been given.

BM: Thanks, Stephanie. The exhibition is somewhat of a retrospective over 10 years of work including drawings, prints and oils. The show is installed by the museum staff, who did a great job.

SH: How long have you been preparing for the Elmhurst show? How long will it be up?

BM: I believe it all started about 2 years ago. I submitted some slides following a suggestion of my artist friend Curtis Bartone (7), who exhibited late last year (2000) in the same museum in a fantastic solo show. The show named, Portraits of the Soul” that I share with Nancy Plotkin (8) runs from January 18 through March 11 (the show took place in 2001).

SH: You've had quite a few shows actually; 100 group, and 20 one-person exhibitions. If you would sum it up - how does one get so many shows?

BM: Persistence, being somewhat on top of things, some luck, and lots of hard work, and... living long enough, hopefully much longer still. Networking may be important, but I am sufficiently arrogant to say that I'd rather let the work be selected because of its quality. However, things may blur. After a while, you cannot prevent that some people may select your work, having known of you beforehand.

SH: Please tell me about your recent masterpiece - in particular, the vertical piece with multiple mezzotints and the reproduced letter of your grandfather.

BM: I won't call it a masterpiece but, for me, a very important piece. The piece is an ode to my family, in particular my maternal Grandfather, Max (Mozes Richard) Hakker(t), who died in the concentration camp of Sobibor (Poland), March 9, 1943 (9, search for Mozes Richard Hakker, 10; see also Links under Family Background etc.), according to notes received by the Red Cross. The text is taken from my Grandfather's notebook in which he describes the bombing and consequent destruction of the center of Rotterdam at the onset of the Second World War. I used the burning of a focal point of the city, the St. Laurens (Lawrence) Church, as the focal part of the image. The central image of this church is surrounded by citizens fleeing the city. The whole print consists of 18 separate plates. My Grandfather had a store in which he sold musical instruments. He also arranged special concerts for such luminaries as Louis Armstrong and Coleman Hawkins, among others. He loved his city and was heartbroken by its destruction. On top of that, he and the rest of my family also suffered all consequences of the Nazis' treatment of the Jews. The text, enlarged from my Grandfather's notes, was printed with the help of my artist/writer friend and art colleague, Audrey Niffenegger (11), who works at Columbia College in Chicago (12).

SH: How much does your heritage play a role in your subject matter?

BM: Sometimes a lot, as in the image we discussed above, and sometimes not at all. Probably less so now than about 10 years ago. Maybe I dealt with some heritage issues sufficiently. However, cultural issues you cannot set aside, and I feel that my art is very much within a Dutch, sometimes Dutch-Jewish tradition. Of course, this is “contaminated”, (I mean this positively) by all influences I underwent during my moves to and through the various countries where I've lived - apart from the USA and The Netherlands, also Israel, the UK, and Germany.

SH: What is the intent of your imagery?

BM: I like to think of my works as poetically narrative, carrying a certain mystery. The dreamlike images tend to deal with confined spaces containing certain characters that reach out to one another but do not quite succeed in meeting. Thus, I don't see my images as telling a story but rather images mirroring inner feelings, similar to some poetry. My images are very much "inside out". I hope that viewers also read them as such. I usually have some idea of what I want to say, but much of the image's concept is generated while I draw or paint. The end product is always surprising - I am often amazed that there even is an end product. I draw directly or use small sketches, even doodles, as image-generating nuclei, often combining two or three that appear to complement each other.

SH: How long does a mezzotint (13, for printmaking glossary) usually take to complete?

BM: Not only mezzotints, all of my works tend to take some time to finish. I may make a mezzotint every two or three years, and make about two or three large etchings and drawings every year. Large means for me, 24" x 18". Of course, my slowness is partly because of my “regular” job as a scientist.

SH: Will you explain the process?

BM: Most of my intaglio prints are made using two plates. A base aquatint, often yellow or light ochre, and an “à la poupée” image print. The latter can also contain aquatint, but in the last few years I use all kind of roulettes, metal brushes and some other tools to get different patterns besides the patterns that I draw. While preparing the image I repair frequently, closing the asphaltum with mineral spirits, and draw again. Eventually, the plate looks quite messy, and I have to make one, sometimes two, intermediate acid bites, and continue drawing on a fresh ground. In this way, I have at least made part of the image more permanent. I like the spontaneity of this approach.

For drypoints I use a hardened steel needle. Regarding mezzotints, usually I don't rock my mezzotint plates with graded rockers but rather use “rat-tail” files. This technique was suggested to me by my Utrecht teacher, Mr. Fred Koot (1927-2000) (14a, b) , who was a very accomplished lithographer. I roll 4 or 5 files simultaneously over the plate using my feet, while holding plate and files between two planks. Though less elaborate than rockers, it still is a formidable task. Advantages are that the tooth pattern is random rather than the aligned pattern, as obtained with regular mezzotinting, and that larger mezzotint plates can be prepared or several smaller ones at the same time. A disadvantage is that the pattern is coarser, and that the teeth of the files leave a stronger mark on the plate, making it harder to burnish black back to white. However, I like this technique and believe that I have reached some interesting results using larger plates. I always use oil-based etching inks and never hand color. Finally, I tend not to stick to strict editioning rules, but rather take advantage of the unique opportunity printmaking offers. I like to see my images in different ways by varying color of background and main image, and by varying types of paper from print to print.

SH: Where did you acquire your printmaking knowledge and skills?

BM: I have been making prints since the early seventies. In the Dutch town where I studied biology, Wageningen (15, Agricultural University), printmaking was one of the classes given in its local Art Center called “De Werkwinkel”. Maaike Alma (16), a renowned Dutch printmaker, was my first instructor, followed by many since. After my studies in Wageningen I left in 1972 for Warwick University, Coventry, England, to pursue an advanced degree in biology that I finished in Wageningen in 1977, where I received my PhD. I continued printmaking at the Lanchester Polytechnic with Ted Francis as a teacher. In1975 I returned to The Netherlands, where I worked at the University of Utrecht, and studied printmaking at the Academy Artibus (17) with Fred Koot (14). In 1982 I went to the United States, where I continue printmaking at the Evanston Art Center (18, more recently, since 2002, at the North Shore Art League in Winnetka (19)), a neighbor of Northwestern University, first with Caryl Seidenberg (20), and since around 1986 with Audrey Niffenegger (11). Each country where I lived and worked left a distinct mark on my work.

SH: One of the many challenges in printmaking is retaining access to printing press facilities. Where do you do your work?

BM: At my house, at the Evanston Art Center, and for figure drawing I use the Figurative Art League (21; alas, no longer in existence in 2009), also in Evanston.

SH: What do you think about the Chicago art community?

BM: Great, and very supportive. A curious coincidence is that both Utrecht, the last city where I lived in The Netherlands, and Chicago have a very figurative/narrative tradition. Utrecht with Pyke Koch (22), Joop Moesman (23), Dirkje Kuik (24), Peter Vos (25a, b), Dolf Zwerver (26), and Peter van Poppel (27). Some of these artists belong to an art group called, “De Luis” or, “The Louse”, perhaps the Dutch “Imagists” equivalent. Of course, I was also exposed to the 16th and 17th century School of Utrecht Caravaggist painters, like Hendrick Terbrugghen (28), Abraham Bloemaert (29), Gerard van Honthorst (30), or earlier Jan van Scorel (31). For a while I lived in the UK (1972-1975, Coventry) where I felt, and still am, attracted to British arists in the same figurative/narrative tradition, artists like David Hockney (32), Peter Blake (33), and in my circle of immediate acquaintances the amazing and wonderful Barry Burman (34a, b). Coming to Chicago I saw for the first time the works of Gertrude Abercrombie (35), Ivan Albright (36), Ed Paschke (37), Jim Nutt (38), Seymour Rosofsky (39), Vera Berdich (40), Hollis Sigler (41), James Valerio (42), Tony Fitzpatrick (43) among others. Most important though were the artists in my immediate environment. At the Evanston Art Center (now at the North Shore Art League) we have a core group that has been working together for many years, besides Audrey Niffenegger (11) and myself, Paula Campbell (44), Elizabeth Ockwell (45), Sheryl Orlove (46), Diane Thodos (47), and John Rush (48). A great, great group of peers, for me especially important in the absence of close family in this country. Besides this group, I have been involved with projects from other printmaking venues, notably the Chicago Printmakers Collaborative (49) and Anchor Graphics (50).

SH: Which Chicago artists inspire you?

BM: I like the work of many artists in this city. This is a very honest artist’ town, with an incredible amount of talent, probably because so many of us have to struggle very hard to make it even a little bit. I like for example the works of Riva Lehrer (51), Barton Faist (52), Michael (53a, b) and Laura Montenegro (54), Maria Tomasula (55), Louise LeBourgeois (56) and Steven Carelli (57), Judith Roth (58), Janet Bloch (59), Meltem Aktas (60a, b), Curtis Bartone (7), David Zimmerman (61), Tim Lowly (62) and Diana Sudyka (63), some of them already listed above. I had the fortunate opportunity, given to me by the Suburban Fine Art Center (now The Art Center, 64) in Highland Park and the Dittmar Gallery of Northwestern University (65), to assemble several exhibitions that included work of most of these artists.

SH: Which non-Chicago artists?

BM: Above all Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn (66, see also Links), the genius graphic artist and painter, but also the delicate Johannes Vermeer (67, see also Links), and the outlandish printmaker Hercules Seghers (68), Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (69), the tragic Carel Fabritius (70), and Frans Hals (71), the Dutch impressionists Isaac Israels (72) and George Hendrik Breitner (73), the German Expressionists (74), and James Ensor (75a, b). Seeing a drawing of a pupil of Rembrandt, touched up by the master, moves me to tears. In Amsterdam I saw an exhibition of Rembrandt's sketches for his prints, and the various state proofs of his prints. What a show. An all time favorite print is probably that of Jan Six (76, see 77 for painting), who was to become a Mayor of Amsterdam, perusing a book, leaning against a window. Others are the 15th century Dutch and Flemish artists, Geertgen tot Sint Jans (78), Jan Van Eyck (79), Dieric Bouts (80), Gerard David (81), Adriaen Isenbrandt (82), Hans Memling (83), and artists that I grew up with, such as Dick Ket (84), Jan Mankes (85), Charley Toorop (86, see the clown), and Co Westerik (87). The latter is an excellent painter and graphic artist.

Other contemporary artists that I feel great affinity to are the Dutchmen Peter Vos (already mentioned, 25a, b) and Charles Donker (88), from Utrecht (The Netherlands), the German Horst Janssen (89), the Czech Jirí Anderle (90), and the Slovak Albín Brunovsky (91), all masters with the pencil and/or brush as well as with the etching needle. I just cannot get enough of their works.

Actually, despite the geographic boundaries, I think that any good artist reaches an universal viewership and is of all times - past, present, and future.

SH: Is there anything else you'd like to say to the viewers?

BM: Perhaps I should mention an exhibition that I helped to put together called, “Through the Artist's Eye”, held at the The Art Center (65), in Highland Park in 2001.

The rationale behind the show was the following:

Many artists collect art. The collections may be modest or more comprehensive, but they always contain some pieces that one cherishes as being, metaphorically speaking, part of oneself, a spiritual mirror. This show presents collected works side by side with the personal works of the artist collectors. The exhibition will explore whether, and if so, how the artists' works reflect the acquired works and vice versa. The artists/collectors are, besides me, Linda Kramer (92), Lorna Marsh (93), and Barton Faist (52). Works collected include artists from all over the globe, also several of the names listed above such as Gertrude Abercrombie (35), Ed Paschke (37), and Jíri Anderle (90). I thought that this was an interesting and reflective exhibition.

SH: It's safe to say Bert’s day job thoroughly affects his arts’ research technique.

1) Note: As of August 2006, Bert retired from Evanston's Northwestern University.


1. Bert Menco's research, a http://webarchives.cdlib.org/sw1fn12z7t/https://depot.northwestern.edu/~bmenco/, b.


2.Les Enfants du Paradis, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CjV_hZ9qBfc

3. Jean-Antoine Watteau, http://www.artic.edu/artaccess/AA_Rococo/pages/1watteau_lg.shtml

4. Art Scene Chicago 2000 , Ivy Sundell, Crow Woods Publishing, Evanston, IL, 2000, http://crowwoodspublishing.com/artist00.html

5. The Best of Printmaking An International Collection, Rockport Publishers, Gloucester, MA, 1997, http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1564963713/sr=8-1/qid=1156158408/ref=pd_bbs_1/104-3918005-1943938?ie=UTF8

6. Elmhurst Art Museum, http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2001-01-18/news/0101180290_1_artists-work-midwest-museums-abstract-art

7. Curtis Bartone, http://curtisbartone.com/

8. Nancy Plotkin, http://www.lipaart.org/MementoMori.html

9. Mozes Richard Hakker(t), http://www.holocaustresearchproject.org/ar/sobibor/sobiborrememberme.html

10. Mezzotint related to Hakker(t) Rotterdam WWII, http://collectie.hmr.rotterdam.nl/objecten/77961

11. Audrey Niffenegger, http://www.audreyniffenegger.com/

12. Columbia College, http://www.colum.edu/academics/media-arts/centers/book-and-paper-arts.html

13. Printmaking glossary, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Printmaking

14. Fred Koot, a.http://www.mutualart.com/Artwork/Misty-landscape/69EEB0B616BFB08E, b. http://www.kunstveiling.nl/veiling-main/6267/6202/fred-koot--kleurenlitho--avondnevel-over-nepal-/

15. Department of Entomology, Wageningen, The Netherlands, http://www.ent.wur.nl/UK/education/

16. Maaike Alma, http://www.maaikealma.nl

17. Academy Artibus, http://www.uck.nl/

18. Evanston Art Center, http://www.evanstonartcenter.org/

19. North Shore Art League, http://www.northshoreartleague.org

20. Caryl Seidenberg, http://www.caxtonclub.org/reading/2001/Dec2001/seidenberg.htm

21. Figurative Art League, http://www.merchantcircle.com/business/Figurative.Art.League.LTD.847-475-8430

22. Pyke Koch, http://www.tendreams.org/koch.htm

23. Joop Moesman, http://www.utrechtaanzee.nl/index.pl/nl/nieuwe_pagina2

24. Dirkje Kuik, http://www.dirkjekuik.com/museum.html

25. Peter Vos, a. http://www.chrisdenengelsman.nl/Reprocitaat/leeflang-vos.htm, b. http://www.galeriepetit.nl/Peter Vos.htm

26. Dolf Zwerver, http://www.dolfzwerver.nl/

27. Peter van Poppel, http://www.petervanpoppel.nl

28. Hendrick Terbrugghen, https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/explore-the-collection/overview/hendrick-ter-brugghen

29. Abraham Bloemaert, https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/explore-the-collection/overview/abraham-bloemaert

30. Gerard van Honthorst, https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/explore-the-collection/overview/gerard-van-honthorst

31. Jan van Scorel, https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/explore-the-collection/overview/jan-van-scorel

32. David Hockney, http://www.hockneypictures.com/

33. Peter Blake, http://www.tate.org.uk/liverpool/exhibitions/peterblake/

34. Barry Burman, a. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barry_Burman, b. http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/artists/barry-burman

35. Gertrude Abercrombie, http://www.askart.com/askart/a/gertrude_abercrombie/gertrude_abercrombie.aspx

36. Ivan Albright, http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/search/citi/artist%3AAlbright

37. Ed Paschke, http://www.edpaschke.com/

38. Jim Nutt, http://www.askart.com/AskART/artists/search/Search_Repeat.aspx?searchtype=IMAGES&artist=31062

39. Seymour Rosofsky, http://www.printworkschicago.com/artists/rosofsky/rosofsky.htm

40. Vera Berdich, http://www.printworkschicago.com/artists/berdich/berdich.htm

41. Hollis Sigler, http://www.nmwa.org/works/kiss-spirits-now-what-it-really

42. James Valerio, http://forumgallery.com/artist/james-valerio/

43. Tony Fitzpatrick, http://www.davidsongalleries.com/artists/contemporary/tony-fitzpatrick/

44. Paula Campbell, http://www.paulacampbellart.com/

45. Elizabeth Ockwell, http://prographicadrawings.com/artist/elizabeth-ockwell

46. Sheryl Orlove, http://www.sherylorlove.com

47. Diane Thodos, http://dianethodos.com/Diane_Thodos_Homepage/Home_page.html

48. John Rush, http://johnrushillustration.com/index.html

49. Chicago Printmakers Collaborative, http://www.chicagoprintmakers.com/

50. Anchor Graphics, http://www.colum.edu/academics/anchor-graphics/index.html

51. Riva Lehrer, http://rivalehrer.com/

52. Barton Faist, http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-rTw7mrVYJzc/TuQrI1ZuWyI/AAAAAAAARXQ/DcS9aVTCLAM/s1600/barton%2Bfaist.jpg

53. Michael Montenegro, a. http://www.theatreinchicago.com/news.php?articleID=224, b. http://www.zarkotheatre.org/

54. Laura Montenegro,http://www.lauranymanmontenegro.com/Laura_Montenegro/About_Me.html

55. Maria Tomasula, http://forumgallery.com/artist/maria-tomasula/

56. Louise LeBourgeois, http://www.louiselebourgeois.com/

57. Steven Carelli, http://www.stevencarelli.com/

58. Judith Roth, http://www.judithroth-art.com/

59. Janet Bloch, http://www.janetbloch.com/aboutjanet.html

60. Meltem Aktas, a. http://chicagotonight.wttw.com/2013/12/19/sacred-artist, b. http://www.imagoicons.com/about.html

61. David Zimmerman, http://theninesgallery.com/?page_id=105

62. Tim Lowly, http://www.timlowly.com/

63. Diana Sudyka, http://www.dianasudyka.com/

64. The Art Center, Highland Park, http://www.theartcenterhp.org/

65. Dittmar Gallery, http://www.northwestern.edu/norris/arts-and-recreation/dittmar/index.html

66. Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn, https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/explore-the-collection/overview/rembrandt-harmensz-van-rijn

67. Johannes Vermeer, https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/explore-the-collection/overview/johannes-vermeer

68. Hercules Seghers, https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/explore-the-collection/overview/hercules-segers

69. Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, http://www.all-art.org/neoclasscism/goya12.html

70. Carel Fabritius, http://collectie.boijmans.nl/en/work/1205%20%28OK%29

71. Frans Hals, http://www.franshalsmuseum.nl/en/collection/collection/collection/frans-hals/

72. Isaac Israels, https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/explore-the-collection/overview/isaac-israels

73. George Hendrik Breitner, https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/explore-the-collection/overview/george-hendrik-breitner

74. German Expressionists, http://www.bruecke-museum.de/english.html

75. James Ensor, a. http://wwar.com/masters/e/ensor-james.html, b. http://www.getty.edu/art/gettyguide/artObjectDetails?artobj=932

76. Rembrandt van Rijn's etched portrait of Jan Six, http://www.rembrandtpainting.net/rmbrdnt_selected_etchings/six.htm

77. Rembrandt van Rijn's painted portrait of Jan Six, http://arthistory.about.com/od/from_exhibitions/ig/dutchportraitsngl/dp_ngl_0707_12m.htm

78. Geertgen tot Sint Jans, http://tour.boijmans.nl/en/3/

79. Jan Van Eyck, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jan_van_Eyck

80. Dieric Bouts, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dirk_Bouts

81. Gerard David, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gerard_David

82. Adriaen Isenbrandt, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adriaen_Isenbrandt

83. Hans Memling, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hans_Memling

84. Dick Ket, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dick_Ket

85. Jan Mankes, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jan_Mankes

86. Charley Toorop, http://www.nieuwessesteijn.nl/charley_toorop.htm

87. Co Westerik, http://www.westerik.nl/

88. Charles Donker, http://charlesdonker.rkdmonographs.nl/catalogus

89. Horst Janssen, http://www.horst-janssen-museum.de/index.php?id=8

90. Jirí Anderle, http://www.anderle.cz/main/start_gb.htm

91. Albín Brunovský, http://www.cvltnation.com/nightmares-melt-reality-fuck-yeah-art-ofalbin-brunovsky/

92. Linda Kramer, http://www.printworkschicago.com/artists/kramer/kramer.htm

93. Lorna Marsh, http://www.artcritical.com/blurbs/DTMarsh.htm

Postscripts: For interesting links to printmaker associations and resources:

http://www.printalliance.org/. Bert's article, A Self-Portrait Inside Out" appeared in Contemporary Impressions, Vol. 6 (2), 1998, the journal of the American Printalliance.

*As of autumn 2006, Bert Menco retired from active research at Evanston's Northwestern University.


Copyright 1999-2016 Bert Menco, All Rights Reserved