Claire Burch died May 21 at the age of 84. A tiny woman with a video camera always in hand, she was a familiar figure in People’s Park and on Telegraph Avenue.
Since coming to Berkeley from New York 30 years ago, she shot thousands of hours of footage and produced dozens of videos of well-known and ordinary people, showing their struggles and successes, joys and pains.
She cared especially about people on the fringes, people who are homeless or mentally ill, young people living on the streets with only a dog for a steady companion. She would spend hours recording homeless people telling of their struggles to survive. She filmed homeless encampments and wacky rituals performed by street people on the Avenue or in People’s Park. People knew they could trust her to convey their stories with compassion. She once said to me, “If I’ve done anything in my life that has any value, I think it’s that maybe I have managed to give more of a voice to the people who I call street survivors.” She wrote several books about homeless people in Berkeley, adding her poetry and pictures to their own words.
Claire was a prolific artist and composer, poet and filmmaker. Her creative drive appeared at an early age. She told me, “I remember my parents saying turn the light out. I was one of those little kids who they’d say ‘go out and play’ and I’d hang out in the hallway, reading my little book. My poor parents wanted me to be a lawyer. They wanted me to do something practical. Here I was scribbling away. Painting got added to the mix before I can even remember. ... And it escalated, it never went away. It got more and more intense.”
It seemed that her parents accepted her choice. “When I was 12 I got a scholarship to a ‘life’ class. They had models. And they had a naked man which was very exciting. My folks didn’t realize. They knew on Saturdays I’d go to this drawing class, but I never told them what was so interesting about it. It was a great big chunk of my life.”
She said later on in life, about writing and painting in bad times, “it keeps the demons away.” And there were demons: the death of child, the psychiatric illness of an adopted daughter, health problems and near blindness in her last years.
She could be very funny and loved unconventional people and unconventional lifestyles. She was born in New York and lived there except for a period in the suburbs, which she hated. She once told me about it: “I felt like a fish out of water, I knew I didn’t belong. ... (in) Great Neck, Long Island, where people had wall-to-wall carpets all the way to the ceiling.” When her husband died she moved with her daughters into a housing complex in Manhattan that was home to many artists. “It was one of the best times in my life,” she told me.
Thirty-six years ago she met Mark Weiman at a conference on Jung and Hesse in Switzerland. They have been together ever since. Mark says of himself, “I was her publisher and paramour.” Claire would have loved that! “Domestic partner” sounds so pedestrian!
Claire was incredibly productive. She did thousands of drawings and paintings. Mark tries to define her style: “She was a contemporary artist working in a variety of realistic and abstract forms.” She particularly liked collage which she used a lot. Her work is widely collected and is held in many private collections and museums.
Music, even more than art, was a big element in her life. She told of falling down a flight of stairs and sustaining brain injury, after which she began hearing music in her head. So she learned to write music and wrote hundreds of songs. She produced a musical play which had a successful off-Broadway run. Jose Quintero, the well known interpreter of Eugene O’Neill, was engaged to direct another of her optioned plays.
She and Mark moved to Berkeley in 1978, where she continued painting and drawing. She had started some filming in New York, even made a little feature film, but here she got into video in earnest. And as methods and technology improved, she eagerly took up each new format. Mark describes how she started with the big, clumsy cameras, then Hi-8 and more and more compact and versatile video equipment, always keeping up with state-of-the-art technology. Mark says, “She always was recording, every single day of her life ... in some form, an hour or two of reality. A writer would make notes in their mind and then write it down—she embraced the technology. It was there to use.”
From time to time she had showings of her films in the Bay Area. Recently she showed People’s Park, Then and Now at a benefit for Food Not Bombs. She showed a film about James Baldwin—who was a friend from her early years in New York—at a Berkeley film festival. Two years ago the Berkeley Unitarian Fellowship sponsored an evening of her films.
She also wrote numerous books on serious subjects such as homelessness and mental illness, and a wonderful book of poetry, Where Never is Forever, that Mark recently published. In a hilarious book, Charles Darwin in Cyberspace, Emma Wedgewood has a wacky exchange of letters with her husband Charles Darwin, wildly hallucinating while tripping on some moldy bread pudding. She flips back and forth between 19th century England, where she is demanding child support for a very odd child and accusing her husband of having an affair, and 20th century America, where she is trying to get on welfare and thoroughly confusing the social worker. But even with all the silliness, Claire conveyed an understanding of critical issues of mental illness and dealing with the welfare system—and even a bit of Charles Darwin’s scientific work.
Claire’s life was an inspiration. She was deeply committed to the people and causes she cared about. All who knew her appreciate not only what she did but the human being that she was.
In addition to Mark, Claire leaves behind her two daughters (who were her best friends), her grandchildren, her sister and brothers, sons-in-law, and many other family members and friends who adored her.