Rick Berry with his new mural at Workbar Arlington. / Marjorie Howard photoRick Berry with his new mural at Workbar Arlington. / Marjorie Howard photo

Rick Berry often paints something he has never seen before, an image he says, lying in wait in his unconscious. He believes all of us have an active inner process in our minds, which is why he hopes a mural he recently painted may trigger someone else's thoughts.

Berry, 62, is an internationally known artist who painted a mural for Workbar, a shared work space that opened in Arlington in February.

Among our many-faceted residents

 Workbar is in a restored mill building along the Mill Brook owned by Mirak Properties. It offers work spaces, meeting rooms, lunchtime talks and other events and allows people to work on their own or collaborate.

Berry's mural is a swirl of turbines, whale bones, seaweed and a large fish, all enveloped in churning water. Perhaps, Berry hopes, someone getting a cup of coffee will gaze at his mural, and it will unlock something in her unconscious. She will return to her desk having had an aha moment, perhaps an idea that translates into solving a problem.

The mural is different from Berry's usual style. He is known for his expressionistic, figurative paintings, which are in museums and in private collections, including those of authors Neil Gaiman, Stephen King and George R.R. Martin. Self-taught, he dropped out of high school when he was 17 after earning poor grades and figuring he'd be drafted. As a kind of last hurrah, he started hitch-hiking around the country, working odd jobs. But he always had an inner sense, he says, that he was an artist.

In Boston with a dollar

"Since I was little, I was always drawing, and my mother encouraged it," he recalls. "I sometimes lost jobs because I was busy doing art."

To his relief, he drew a high lottery number for the draft and continued his travels, hitchhiking to wherever rides took him.

One ride was especially auspicious. He arrived in Boston in 1978 with only a dollar to his name and applied for a job at the Harvard Coop. There he met the woman who would become his wife, Sheila. She was just out of college with an art degree, working in the art print department where Berry took a job as a framer. The couple married and bought a home in Arlington where they raised three children, all of whom are now in college.

Sheila went to work as a graphic designer for industry magazines, and the couple started their own design business called Berigraf Studios, working from home. Berry knocked on the doors of art directors at New York publishing houses and began to get work designing book covers.

from Verne cover to international galleries

The first was for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, published by Grossett & Dunlap. He went on to design high-end collectible books for such writers as Stephen King and Peter Straub, working on science fiction, fantasy and comic books.

Muralist Rick Berry at work. / Sheila Berry photoMuralist Rick Berry at work. / Sheila Berry photo

In 1985 he created the first digitally painted book cover for William Gibson's Neuromancer.

All the while, he kept painting, and now his work is in Italy's Lucca Museum of Contemporary Art and galleries in New York City, Boston and San Francisco. He paints out of his studio in a renovated mill building next door to the Workbar space. His studio is a comfortable hodgepodge of canvases, a cozy sitting area and an upright piano.

His interest in the unconscious has led him to give workshops on the process of creating art.

"My work has no prior anything," he says. "I just step up to the canvass and begin. Eventually, people have asked me how I do it, and I began asking that question myself. I had no art training and couldn't find anything about this in art books, but there was stuff in science."

What happens in your brain?

"How," he asks, "do you paint something when you don’t have it in front of you? I want to know how that works, what happens in your brain."

Berry has conducted workshops at Oklahoma City University, Babson and MIT to talk not so much about his art but how it came into being. The unconscious, he says, is something we use all the time but don’t know it.

"It’s about what happens when you've shoved your conscious mind out of the way and have engaged the big engines of who you really are and what you can really do. Once your tidy conscious and really limited sense of the world is out of the way, the bigger thing takes over. I talk to people about using art to engage the much faster part of the mind; it’s like hitting a 96 mile per hour fast ball or swerving to avoid an accident; you have to engage a zone."

As for his mural, there was nothing in front of him when he started drawing and he found himself organizing images into something to demonstrate the power and energy of water. He wasn’t interested in a historical drawing of a mill so instead, as he always does, used art as a discovery process. "I like to find out what I didn’t know I knew," he says. "I’ll start a painting with no idea what I'm going to do, I'll turn the music up and swing at the surface."



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This news feature was published Sunday, March 27, 2016.