Ilze Berzins

Kinetic spaces: Author, artist and teacher Ilze Berzins fills her Glebe home with eclectic, affordable objects, from ivy to a stalking leopard.
Julia Elliott reports.

The Ottawa Citizen
Saturday, January 27, 2001
Page: G1 / FRONT
Section: Homes: Resale/Rental
Byline: Julia Elliott
Source: The Ottawa Citizen

For those who think it takes gobs of money to buy art, spend a few economical minutes in the singular surroundings of Ilze Berzins.

Like a piece of kinetic art herself, she points to treasures and whirls about her modest living space — where, among other pursuits, she has penned two murder mysteries, Death in the Glebe and the recent Revenge on the Rideau.

It’s not easy to describe Ms. Berzins decidedly wild style. For lack of a better phrase, let’s call it artistic invention sans price tag.

“This is all make do; it’s like a regeneration,” she explains. “I like it. I’m glad I don’t have a dining suite and wall-to-wall rugs or whatever. I like the minimal look.

“Beauty is free. It’s a gift. We can surround ourselves with what we feel is beautiful in the most humble situations.”

For starters, her one-bedroom Glebe apartment of four years, for which she pays $670 per month, offers relaxing views of Ottawa’s Central Park, a sunken piece of serenity off the Rideau Canal at First Avenue which cuts Bank Street at Powell. Her building, Ambassador Court on Bank Street, is a landmark designed by architect Werner Noffke in 1928.

Ms. Berzins surrounds herself with an eclectic mix: Japanese fans, a papier mache leopard on the fireplace mantel, trailing English ivy, candles perched on artificial coals in a fireplace grate and a self-made floor mat with child-inspired drawings of cat and fish.

This collection has evolved since Ms. Berzins returned four years ago from a year in Latvia, her birthplace.

She recalls arriving at the Ottawa airport with no winter clothes, no possessions, “no job, no husband, no home.”

After a stay with her brother Andrejs, Ottawa’s former chief Crown attorney, Ms. Berzins found the ideal apartment.

It doubles as home and work space for her writing, art-card creations and art classes with area youngsters.

Ms. Berzins writes about her own apartment and approach to decorating in Revenge on the Rideau. She also gives her character Clairlise an eclectic interior and writes:

“She looked around with muted pleasure at her sanctuary, at her cosy little room, at her books and paintings and plants,” notes Ms. Berzins.

“She lived like a student. Like a hippie, people said, even though she was over 50. But what had age to do with anything? Age had never mattered to her.”

Certainly Ms. Berzins and her Glebe flat seem ageless.

Let’s take a tour of the living room — well, make that her art studio, dining room, office and home to Julio, an orange tabby and Clyde, a friendly, non-barking German shepherd.

Sit on the couch and take in a leafy umbrella plant — a find from a grocery store give-away ad. She painted the nearby radiator a complementary green and points to three windows above it that form a shallow bay facing Central Park.

The most imposing decor element is a massive but ornate fireplace, which, although oversize for the room, adds luxury. The next standout is an uplifting piece of floor art that Ms. Berzins prepared with a fantasy tableau of cat and fish drawings.

“It’s an incredible art form,” she says. “It’s usable and durable.”

A couch, left behind in the building’s garbage room, is covered with a loose flowered cloth throw. A TV sits opposite on the hardwood floor.

Behind the couch is the work area and a table bought at Costco — the only store-bought furniture besides a bed. The table holds a computer and space for art work.

Most furniture pieces are found objects, possibly left behind from previous tenants or salvaged from front yards in community street sales.

The kitchen is tiny — with limited cupboard and counter space. Ms. Berzins jokes she orders in Chinese. Whatever the meal, she often eats in the living room.

Her bedroom is fairly ordinary save for two large fantasy paintings, one a mermaid in repose, another a fish in repose.

All in all, Ms. Berzins has spent a lifetime with an artistic frame of mind.

In the 1960s, with a bachelor of arts degree from McGill University and a passion for French culture, she took in Paris, then teachers’ college back in Canada. After a stint as a French teacher, she hankered for more art work.

“I didn’t want to teach art because if you’re teaching, you have nothing left for you,” she says. “You come home and you don’t want to think about art anymore. Particularly in the high schools, it’s a rugged work area. You’re mainly a disciplinarian.”

Ms. Berzins returned to school, eventually earning a master’s degree in art education from the former Sir George Williams University in Montreal. Then in the late 1970s, when the university changed its name to Concordia, she taught drawing and painting.

This was followed by a job teaching art education at the Art College of Nova Scotia and her own little school teaching children art. A move to Oakville followed, where she again taught art.

Then five years ago, after her mother regained possession of the family’s ancestral home, she returned to Latvia and wrote her first book, the autobiographical Happy Girl.

Today, with downsizers eagerly selling mansions, Ms. Berzins is in the vanguard.

Her Ottawa home in a fashionable arty neighbourhood is extremely compact with many luxuries: a southern exposure, view of a quiet park, limited domestic chores — and no tax assessment to appeal, grass to cut or Saab to maintain.

Her primary thoughts? Writing and painting.

What more will she do to her nest?

A limited income dictates small steps. But a creative person knows no bounds, especially one schooled in the fine art of re-invention.

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