“I divide my time between science and
art...” - Bert Menco
process, time, and inspiration
in this interview with Bert Menco,
a neurobiologist and artist from Evanston, IL*
by Stephanie Hayden
ART of Chicago: 2/12/01- 2/18/01
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.
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.
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.
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).
How, if at all, does research in neurobiology affect your printmaking
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
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.
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.
Do you think your subject matter is particularly analytical?
Can anyone really escape that?
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
You're in two books on the Chicago art scene, one by Ivy Sundell
and one by Rockport Publishers (5), tell me about the books
and how you were chosen to be a contributor in both.
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).
You've got a great show up right now at the Elmhurst Art Museum
Tell me what this show is about and what you've done with
the space you've been given.
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
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).
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
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.
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).
How much does your heritage play a role in your subject matter?
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
What is the intent of your imagery?
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
How long does a mezzotint (13, for printmaking glossary) usually take to complete?
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.
Will you explain the process?
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.
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.
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
(14a, b). 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.
One of the many challenges in printmaking is retaining access
to printing press facilities. Where do you do your work?
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.
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 (25), 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).
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 (53) 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.
Which non-Chicago artists?
BM: Above all Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn (66), the genius graphic artist and painter, but also the delicate Johannes Vermeer (67), 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
(86a, 86b, clown), and Co Westerik (87).
The latter is an excellent painter and graphic artist.
contemporary artists that I feel great affinity to are the Dutchmen Peter Vos (already mentioned, 25) 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 view enough of their works.
despite the geographic boundaries, I think that any good artist
reaches an universal viewership and is of all times - past,
present, and future.
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.
behind the show was the following:
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.
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. Also, Audrey Niffenegger no longer works at Columbia College (from around 2013).
1. Bert Menco's research, a https://wayback.archive-it.org/6321/20140703184939/https://depot.northwestern.edu/~bmenco/, b. https://wayback.archive-it.org/6321/20140703184936/https://depot.northwestern.edu/~bmenco/menco2.html
2. “Les Enfants du Paradis”, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ABzfKzwA7g
3. Jean-Antoine Watteau, http://www.jean-antoine-watteau.org
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://artonarmitage.net/past-shows/2016/4/14/nancy-plotkin-and-margaret-lanterman-october-2008
9. Mozes Richard Hakker(t), http://www.holocaustresearchproject.org/ar/sobibor/sobiborrememberme.html
10. Mezzotint related to Hakker(t) Rotterdam WWII, https://museumrotterdam.nl/collectie/item/77961?itemReturnStart=0&objectrow=0&itemReturnSearch=Bert%20Menco
11. Audrey Niffenegger, http://www.audreyniffenegger.com/
12. Columbia College, https://www.colum.edu/academics/programs/interdisciplinary-book-and-paper-mfa.html
13. Printmaking glossary, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Printmaking
14. Fred Koot, a.http://www.mutualart.com/Artwork/Misty-landscape/69EEB0B616BFB08E, b. https://rkd.nl/nl/explore/artists/45807
15. Department of Entomology, Wageningen, The Netherlands, http://www.ent.wur.nl/UK/education/
16. Maaike Alma, http://www.maaikealma.nl
17. Academy Artibus, https://www.hku.nl/web/show
18. Evanston Art Center, http://www.evanstonartcenter.org/
19. North Shore Art League, http://www.northshoreartleague.org
20. Caryl Seidenberg, https://library.uic.edu/about/news/article/6188/watch-our-new-video-interview-with-book-artist-caryl-seidenberg
Figurative Art League, http://www.merchantcircle.com/business/Figurative.Art.League.LTD.847-475-8430
22. Pyke Koch, http://www.tendreams.org/koch.htm
Joop Moesman, http://www.utrechtaanzee.nl/index.pl/nl/nieuwe_pagina2
Dirkje Kuik, http://www.dirkjekuik.com/museum.html
25. Peter Vos, https://modemworld.me/2016/07/21/the-magnificent-artistry-of-peter-vos-in-second-life/
26. Dolf Zwerver, http://www.juffermans.nl/en/artists/se-zw/zwerver-dolf/
Peter van Poppel, http://www.petervanpoppel.nl
28. Hendrick Terbrugghen, http://www.hendrickbrugghen.org
29. Abraham Bloemaert, https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/rijksstudio/artists/abraham-bloemaert
30. Gerard van Honthorst, https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/search?p=1&ps=12&f.principalMakers.name.sort=Gerard+van+Honthorst&st=Objects
31. Jan van Scorel, https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/search?p=1&ps=12&f.principalMakers.name.sort=Jan+van+Scorel&st=Objects
32. David Hockney, http://www.hockneypictures.com/
33. Peter Blake, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/peter-blake-763
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, https://www.artic.edu/search?q=Ivan%20Albright
37. Ed Paschke, http://www.edpaschke.com/
Jim Nutt, http://www.askart.com/AskART/artists/search/Search_Repeat.aspx?searchtype=IMAGES&artist=31062
39. Seymour Rosofsky, http://www.corbettvsdempsey.com/artists/seymour-rosofsky/
40. Vera Berdich, https://www.artic.edu/artists/33607/vera-berdich
Hollis Sigler, http://www.nmwa.org/works/kiss-spirits-now-what-it-really
James Valerio, https://www.artic.edu/artists/59519/james-valerio
Tony Fitzpatrick, http://www.davidsongalleries.com/artists/contemporary/tony-fitzpatrick/
44. Paula Campbell, http://www.northshoreartleague.org/paula-campbell.html
46. Sheryl Orlove, http://www.sherylorlove.com
47. Diane Thodos, https://www.dianethodos.com
48. John Rush, http://www.johnrushart.com
Printmakers Collaborative, http://www.chicagoprintmakers.com/
53. Michael Montenegro, http://www.theatreinchicago.com/news.php?articleID=224
54. Laura Montenegro, http://www.lauranymanmontenegro.com/Laura_Montenegro/About_Me.html
56. Louise LeBourgeois, http://www.louiselebourgeois.com/
57. Steven Carelli, http://www.stevencarelli.com/
Aktas, a. http://chicagotonight.wttw.com/2013/12/19/sacred-artist, b. https://www.facebook.com/Meltem-Aktas-Fine-Artist-708745775868990/
Tim Lowly, http://www.timlowly.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/rijksstudio/artists/rembrandt-van-rijn
67. Johannes Vermeer, https://artsandculture.google.com/project/vermeer
68. Hercules Seghers, https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/rijksstudio/artists/hercules-segers
69. Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, http://www.all-art.org/neoclasscism/goya12.html
70. Carel Fabritius, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carel_Fabritius
71. Frans Hals, https://www.franshalsmuseum.nl/en/search-results/query/frans+hals
72. Isaac Israels, https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/search?p=1&ps=12&f.principalMakers.name.sort=Isaac+Israels&st=Objects
73. George Hendrik Breitner, https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/rijksstudio/artists/george-hendrik-breitner
74. German Expressionists, http://www.theartstory.org/movement-die-brucke.htm
75. James Ensor, a. http://jamesensor.vlaamsekunstcollectie.be, b. http://www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/scandalous_ensor/
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, https://www.codart.nl/museums/rembrandt-portrait-of-jan-six-to-be-displayed-every-summer-in-the-rijksmuseum/
78. Geertgen tot Sint Jans, https://www.boijmans.nl/collectie/kunstwerken/3730/de-verheerlijking-van-maria
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, a. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X4Nv6fCAl14, b. Clown: https://krollermuller.nl/en/charley-toorop-clown-in-front-of-the-ruins-of-rotterdam-1
88. Charles Donker, http://charlesdonker.rkdmonographs.nl/catalogus
91. Albín Brunovský, https://www.wikiart.org/en/albin-brunovsky
92. Linda Kramer, https://www.evanstonartcenter.org/exhibitions/linda-kramer-retrospective
interesting links to printmaker associations and resources:
article, “A Self-Portrait “Inside Out"” appeared in Contemporary
Impressions, Vol. 6 (2), 1998, the journal of the American