Farm Horizons, Aug. 2006

Sketch artist sees character in old barns

By Linda Scherer
Staff Writer

Merle Berbig started drawing barns about four years ago while living in California, where he and his wife, Dorothy, had moved so they could be close to their daughter and her husband.

Most of the barns he drew were from Minnesota, from photographs sent to him by his sons here. He has also drawn a number of barns in California.

Today, at his apartment in Linden Wood in Winsted, where he has lived for almost one year, he has his barn sketches everywhere. They are interesting and eye-catching. Each of the barns that he has drawn have different structure design, and some are weathered more than others, but they are all older buildings.

When he has completed his pencil sketches, he has a copy made, then mats and frames them. Sometimes, he reduces the size so he can include a number of barn sketches in one frame.

Berbig has sold quite a few of his sketches in California at art shows, and is thinking about attending a few art shows in Minnesota. He has just been putting off the paperwork that is required.

Berbig enjoys attending the art shows, which give him extra money when he sells his sketches, and the opportunity to be around people.

Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, Berbig was a salesman for Seagram Distillers for 20 years, and a state manager for Seagrams in Kansas for five years; he has been dealing with people all of his life.

When he retired from Seagrams, he and his wife moved back to Ohio and bought a little cocktail lounge. They owned that for about six or seven years, and when it got to be too much work, they sold it. Berbig was last employed at International Telephone and Telegraph which transferred him to Minnesota. He and his wife stayed in Minnesota because they liked it.

He was a cartoonist first. “All my life, I loved to dabble with cartooning. When I started, I must have been 8 years old. Back in Ohio during the Depression, we all lived in tenement houses. We were all very poor. I did not know we were poor because everybody was poor,” Berbig said. One of Berbig’s friends, who was just a little older than him, had a talent for drawing and that is what got him interested.

“I just had to learn how to do this,” Berbig said. He started by getting the comic section of the newspaper and copying the different cartoons. “When I was in elementary school, I would copy ‘The Captain and the Kids’ and ‘Li’l Abner’ (Pappy and Mammy Yokum). I would sit there for hours and draw,” Berbig said.

All of his school book covers were filled with cartoons that he had drawn.

When he was in the Navy, during World War II, his fellow servicemen were aware of his talent. The guys would have him draw cartoons on envelopes for their girlfriends. When he got out of the service he decided that he liked the idea of being a cartoonist so he went to art school in Ohio.

He sold a few cartoons, but decided that it would have to be more of a hobby than a profession. As a profession, it was a tough one to get into unless you knew the right people or had inside contacts that could be made.

He has some of his previous cartoons framed and they also hang in his apartment. He is not interested in doing cartoons anymore. “I do my own Christmas cards, but I am not getting back into cartooning,” he said.

When Berbig’s wife died, in 2001, “it just broke me up, we had been married for 46 years. I just lost interest in everything,” he said.

A year had gone by since his wife’s death, and one day, as he was driving down the street in California, he saw a unique barn. He tried to draw it. He found he really enjoyed putting the barn on paper and, “it rejuvenated my interest in drawing.”

Berbig has three children and feels very fortunate to have such a wonderful family. “I miss my daughter, Karen, who calls me two or three times a week from California. I will go to California at Thanksgiving to visit,” he said.

“I missed my sons, too,” Berbig said, so he moved to Winsted in September, 2005, to spend time with his sons and his grandchildren. His oldest son, Tony, lives in Mayer, and his youngest son, Phil, lives in Plymouth. He has four grandchildren in Minnesota, Zachary, 24, Ross, 22, Mallory, 19, and Monica, 17; and in California he has one grandson Eric, 29.

Not only is he a grandfather, who drives around in a bright yellow Jeep Wrangler that really stands out in Linden Wood’s parking lot, but hard to believe, Berbig is also a great-grandfather, with two great-granddaughters, Grace, 3, and Isabella, 1.

“My kids keep me pretty busy,” Berbig said.

When asked why he likes to draw barns, Berbig answered, “I fell in love with them. They are something you are not going to see one of these days. They are all going to be gone. If you really look at an older barn, they just have so much character.”

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