ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Mitch Berg’s South Valley compound resembles some kind of funky post-apocalyptic junkyard-meets-Disneyland.
Part sculptor, glass artist and creative combustion engine, Berg is launching a studio school inside shipping containers and a 1972 tractor-trailer bed.
Strips of masking tape slapped onto a recycled blue shipping container spell out the word “Fuego” (Spanish for “fire”). It’s a fitting entryway into the world of a man who burns with the energy of a born storyteller.
Armed with a University of Wyoming degree in journalism (and a single art class), Berg moved to Santa Fe 30 years ago, where he worked odd jobs and became friends with the glass artist Duane Dahl, who showed him the possibilities of kiln-fused glass. He began making whimsical objects and ornaments using welded metal, wood, found objects and glass, eventually adding a small studio to his home. He sells his work at Santa Fe’s Recycled Art Show, at the Rio Grande Arts and Crafts Festival and at other shows across the U.S. He moved to Albuquerque a year ago.
“I just started putting stuff together, and it made me smile,” he said. “I’m kind of a quirk, kind of a weirdo. But other people started smiling. I’ve sold everything I ever made.”
Tibetan prayer flags flutter from an old wrought-iron fence lead into the property. A “Fox in the Henhouse” bird feeder made from a galvanized can sprouting metal animals greets visitors. Fuego’s interior resembles your dad’s garage, complete with pegboards dangling tools and tiny drawers from a onetime Los Alamos film library sporting hand-scrawled labels like “small things,” “toys,” “valuable” and “lady things,” the latter cradling two imitation bread loaves and a toy mixer. A reproduction ’30s radio awaits an art project. The 58- by 8-foot former truck features newly installed drywall and is planted in front of a junkyard crammed with rows of old framed windows, plastic cafeteria trays, car parts, glass telephone pole insulators, carved Pakistani door parts, old shovels, lamp finials and at least one old trumpet. He salvages pieces from the side of the road and abandoned homes. People leave him discards on the curb.
“There’s no shortage of junk,” he said.
“I’m starting a school here, and I’m not a teacher,” he said. “I’m not teaching people how to weld. I’m teaching people how to weld to make art.”
He opened a glass kiln to reveal buffalo-shaped ornaments.
“One turned into this dog,” he said, pointing to the fluid-like distortion. “That’s how I work. You can’t force an accident.”
To create a gardening piece, he wondered if he could start with a wire to make glass leaves.
“Will it crack?” he asked himself. “And it worked. A kid can do it,” he continued. “It’s playing with fire. It’s kind of a build-it-and-they-will-come scenario.”
516 ARTS Executive Director Suzanne Sbarge called Berg “a creative powerhouse.”
“He’s one of the most creative, energetic people I’ve ever met,” she said. “He has an incredible imagination and an amazing can-do approach, like buying a vacant lot in the South Valley and turning it into a rich, fertile, creative space. He’s creating studio space for artists to come to work.”
Berg’s classes will require no textbooks. And he has no opening date, although he is planning a Valentine’s Day dinner. For $60, they’ll get dinner, music and a glass heart.
“I’m really using these techniques to expose people to the joy of making,” he said. “It’s on the way out. Everybody’s staring at a computer screen. It gives you the dopamine fix. But it’s not real. You need an anchor in what’s real to you.”
Inside his restored adobe home, a framed piece called “Mesmer” could be a kind of self-portrait. It features a glass figure atop a set of baby carriage wheels with spreading angel wings soaring above rooftops of scrap metal and wood. He got the idea from a film he saw at New York’s American Folk Art Museum.
“He saw an airplane for the first time,” Berg said. “He’s one of those smart people; a little bit crazy and a little bit smart. He decided to build an airplane.
“He had this joie de vivre. He put wings on a bike. He made this weird helmet and he swore he was flying.”