Artist's life filled with philanthropic, creative pursuits

Artist's life filled with philanthropic, creative pursuits

July 17th, 2012 by Holly Leber in Life Entertainment

Nora Bernhardt is a book artist.

Nora Bernhardt is a book artist.

Photo by Angela Lewis /Times Free Press.


Hometown: Alexandria, La.

What she does for fun: Be with friends.

Favorite food: Boiled crawfish and fresh-ripened tomatoes.

Favorite saying: "We are the people we've been waiting for."

Enjoys reading: The poetry of Mary Oliver.

Nora Bernhardt is well aware of how most people in Chattanooga know her.

"I'm Bob's wife," she said. "That's the most important thing, of course."

Bob is Robert Bernhardt, pops conductor and music director emeritus for the Chattanooga Symphony & Opera. But Nora Bernhardt is much more than "Mrs. Bob." She is a book artist and a master gardener who is the driving force behind several artistic, educational and philanthropic efforts in Chattanooga. She also happens to hold degrees in biology from Tulane and master's degrees in genetics and business administration from Columbia University.

"I don't know anyone who has left and right brain working as much as she does," Bob said. "There's the MBA and then there's the artist. She's also a scientist."

She worked in the merchandising department of Avon cosmetics, spent six years at a tobacco company in Louisville, Ky., and eventually became the head of marketing and development at the Louisville Orchestra, where she met the man who would later become her third husband.

Bernhardt spent more than a decade freelancing as a grant writer until she became the development director at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville. Nora and Bob reconnected in 2005; she moved to Chattanooga and they married.

"I really got it right this time," she said. "I really did. I'm 57 years old, and I finally feel like I'm being the person I want to be. I'm really happy that I've got a wonderful partner in life and I'm doing the things I love."

"You're 57 in December," her husband reminded her.

"Oh, right," she corrected herself. "I'm only 56."

Q: How did you become interested in native plants?

A: I went through the master gardener course in 2009, and I really wanted to learn more about native plants, natural landscapes and avoiding pesticides, being responsible with my little square of the Earth. There really wasn't anything here, so we decided to start this group. Earlier this year, we presented a native plant symposium, and as the group has grown we have affiliated with a national organization called Wild Ones. We just had a meadowscaping symposium. So we're growing this group and trying to expand it.

Q: Does your interest in plants tie into the artistic interests?

A: A little bit. Some of my books have the feel of outdoors. I work in a lot of natural materials and colors. The book arts is a different thing. It's been something I've been interested in for a while. Because I always used to go away to take classes and I couldn't find much in Chattanooga, I felt like we needed to develop a book arts community. I got a MakeWork grant from CreateHere, and I felt that one of the things I needed to do was to give back. My way of giving back was to start a Chattanooga Book Arts collaborative. Slowly but surely, we're building a group of people here who know something about book arts, which has been really gratifying.

Q: Why book arts?

A: I like the book arts because there are lots of layers to them. There's the craftsmanship, which is fun to do, but there are a lot of ways to incorporate meaning into a book. You have synergy between the color and the structure and the words and the visuals. There's just so many ways to incorporate meaning and communicate a message with them. One of the nice things about books and boxes is that you can incorporate objects to make it meaningful to you or the person you're doing it for. It's a way to honor those objects and make it more permanent. It's an old art that a lot of people have forgotten how to do.

Q: What do you gain from creating, whether of a book or a garden?

A: I don't want to be all melodramatic and profound about it, but it's kind of a spiritual satisfaction and contentment that comes with it. I always wanted to get an art degree, but I never felt like I was good enough. I used to paint with my dad. He was an architect.

Q: How did "The Book of Loving Kindness" project come about?

A: It all comes together. I've been working on kindness in my own life. I've been trying to cultivate kindness, and I've been reading a lot about it and doing some work on it. There was a grant opportunity I had through Planet Altered, and I asked myself if I could pass it back out into the community. It benefits me, but it also has a ripple effect in the community, and that's really satisfying. It makes me happy, and it makes some other people happy too.

Q: Any upcoming projects?

A: I've recently joined the board of an organization that's going to be starting up that is going to have a meditation center. It's called the Center for Mindful Living. It's meant to be a center for meditation and prayer, not associated with any religious group or religious practice, though there will be some people will have religious practices in their life.

Q: Do you ever feel overstimulated by all your interests and abilities?

A: No, I look at it as I never get bored. There's always stuff that's fun to do.