by Devin DuMond | photography by Elyse Wild
Chances are, if you have recently visited a coffee shop, restaurant or local business in the Grand Rapids area, you have already become acquainted with the artwork of Hilary Berens. In the last year and a half alone, she has exhibited her paintings in more than 30 different locations and is often asked back for repeat shows. We sat down at MomHive — a newly opened co-working space for moms — to discuss her journey of re-discovering art to cope with life’s ups and downs and how it has become more than just a career.
Berens got her start in college where she earned an associate’s degree in art from Grand Rapids Community College. She described herself as “the person in class who would have really intricate pieces that I would never finish,” which is quite a departure from the artist she is now. It took a return to school for her bachelor’s degree in social work, a complete career change and starting a family to get there. She spent the first nine months after earning her degree as a foster care caseworker before finding her place at Hope Network for the following six years.
During that time, Berens struggled with fertility problems, which— after every treatment in the book—finally resulted in boy/girl twins followed shortly by another baby girl. At 13 months old, her son was diagnosed with Neurofibromatosis type 1 (NF1), a genetic mutation that causes tumors.
“It was a constant ‘wait and see’ situation,” she expressed. “I’m very open about my fertility and son’s medical problems as it creates awareness about these conditions.”
A true portrait of resilience, Berens recognized the toll all of this was having on her mental health. Anxiety, children, medical problems — everything started piling up, and she needed “something for me again.” It was then that she picked up some acrylic paint and started “letting it all out.”
Now, Berens paints nearly every day as part of her self-care regimen and often finishes a piece in a single setting — a far departure from her early college art days. She describes her process as all about being in the moment.
“It’s my version of therapy,” she expressed. “I just zone out and paint.”
The result is expansive, abstract fields of color, each one different yet showcasing her signature brushstrokes or intricate dot patterns and her keen eye for harmonious color schemes.
“…When I’m working
on a piece, that is what I am seeking: peace, relaxation, and creative distraction.”
If there’s one word that sums up Hilary’s art practice, it would be prolific. Her social media posts are full of new work and venues showing her paintings. This is a result of being proactive and dedicated. She sends her artist’s resume out to 20-30 venues at a time. She values professionalism and stresses the importance of setting appointments, being on time and being reliable.
“I am creating art that I am proud of but also putting in the work so that I am providing for my family,” Berens said.
This hard work has certainly paid off. She now shows her art all over Grand Rapids and beyond with displays in dozens of local businesses and an active art fair schedule. With an awareness for creating art for any budget, shehas added custom painted gifts — such as journals, earrings, hats, greeting cards, magnets, and stickers — to her repertoire.
“I like to have a variety and different price points,” she commented. “Not everyone can afford the big-ticket items so by offering different products and prices, and this can impact the overall sale.”
Another unique practice of Berens’ is what she calls her “transformation pieces.” These pieces start with thrifted artwork, often found at Goodwill or garage sales, which she paints directly on top of while leaving some of the original image visible. This integration of her whimsical style and cast aside art of yesteryear allows her to create new, transformed pieces of art. And, any time the original artist’s name is visible, she keeps that as part of the finished piece to honor the artist. To Berens, it is a beautiful and meaningful way to “keep the art going.”
Art can have so many different purposes for both the creator and the audience. For Berens, it is about self-expression. Many people remark that they feel peace or joy when viewing her art.
“It’s pretty perfect,” she reflected. “Because when I’m working on a piece, that is what I am seeking: peace, relaxation, and creative distraction.”
Follow Hilary on Instagram at @hilaryberens.grmi.artist where you will see her smiling face and newest creations.