The December 2006 Edition of Street Spirit

A publication of the American Friends Service Committee


National AFSC AFSC Economic Justice BOSS Website



In this issue:

The Poor Will Perish Without Housing

We Accuse the US Government

The Works of Mercy: Thoughts on the Death of a Homeless Man

Greed Fuels Oakland Condo Conversion Law

Berkeley Food and Housing Project

Happy Holidays: Berkeley Targets the Homeless

Claire Burch Documents Life on the Streets

St. Joseph the Worker Needs Support

94 Years Old and Still Homeless

Judge Orders Fresno to Uphold U.S. Constitution

Stranded in the Season of Giving

Stories of Street Survival

A Criminal of Poverty

New Media Offensive for Iraq War

Poor Leonard's Almanack on Religion

AIDS & Poverty: A Deadly Link

Mysteries in Our Own Back Yard

December Poetry of the Streets


November 2006

October 2006

September 2006

July 2006

June 2006

May 2006

April 2006

March 2006

February 2006

January 2006

November 2005

October 2005

September 2005

August 2005

July 2005

June 2005

May 2005

April 2005

March 2005

February 2005

Street Spirit is published by American Friends Service Committee.

All works are copyrighted by the authors.

The views expressed in Street Spirit are those of the individual authors alone, and not necessarily that of the American Friends Service Committee.

An Artist Documents Life on the Streets of Berkeley

Her love and compassion for her subjects shows in everything she has done. Claire says, "If I've done anything in my life that has any value, I think it's that I maybe have managed to give more of a voice to the people who I call street survivors."

by Lydia Gans

Berkeley writer and filmmaker Claire Burch works on editing her digital videos in her home studio. Lydia Gans photo

Claire Burch is a familiar figure around People's Park and Telegraph Avenue. A small person toting a bulky video camera, she has been documenting the people and the happenings of this area since she came to Berkeley from New York 28 years ago. "The first day in People's Park," she says, "I was utterly hooked."

Since then, Burch has shot some 6,000 hours and produced more than three dozen videos of well-known and ordinary people in Berkeley, showing their struggles and successes, joys and pains. Her love and compassion for her subjects shows in everything she has done.

But Claire Burch is also an artist. Her works are more than straight documentaries; they are full of quirky details, superimposed images and overlays of her drawings, and images captured from her own unique point of view.

Creative art in one form or another has always been a part of her life. As a child of six, she was constantly writing or painting. Burch is matter-of-fact in describing herself. "I guess I was one of those little kids who liked to do that kind of thing. And it escalated, it never went away, it got more and more intense."

Her parents wanted her to be something practical, like a lawyer, but they didn't seem to push it. She recalls, "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."

Painting remained important for her, "a great big chunk of my life." She and her husband had a small apartment in New York and, she says, she "painted and painted and painted." She had three shows of her artworks and got good reviews, but sold very little.

When the children came, they decided to move to the suburbs "so the kids could have a backyard." But Burch was not happy there, hating the materialism, the "great emphasis on stuff, buying stuff, having more stuff." So she painted.

Her little boy died when he was 14 months old and, she says, "I started painting intensely. It kept me sane."

She describes four miserable years while living in the suburbs when she "went to a shrink, unfortunately a Freudian. He took paintings instead of money, which at the time I thought was great. I thought if I ever wanted to exhibit them I could borrow them back."

After a time, she got disgusted with him and stopped going. "What happened with the paintings was he donated them to the New York psychoanalytic annual auction for a heavy tax deduction and I never saw them again."

When her husband died, Burch returned to New York with her three daughters. They moved into an apartment in Manhattan in a building which had been converted to subsidized housing for writers and artists. It was called Westbeth. It had spacious apartments for 400 families and provided a very stimulating environment.

She mentions some of the famous people who lived there, Merce Cunningham and Diane Arbus. "It was fabulous," she recalls. "One of the best times in my life. "

Burch was still painting and also drawing " hundreds and hundreds of contour drawings." She started making movies and even produced a little feature film. "It was terrible but I loved it," she says.

In 1973 she met Mark Weiman, and they have been together ever since. They came and settled in California in 1978.

Once in California, she got seriously into filming. "It gradually replaced drawing. I couldn't stop," she says. Back then, it was Hi-8 film in a movie camera. As that became obsolete, she switched to digital. As all of us who do digital photography know, whether still or video, it's easy and cheap to shoot hours of material -- the editing is the hard part. And for Claire Burch, it is the really important part.

She is not interested in keeping up with the latest, increasingly sophisticated technology. She scorns the latest high-definition technology, producing beautiful pictures with little or no content or meaning.

"I'm satisfied if there's a little blurring or some scratches," she says. "Things that would be considered technically poor don't bother me very much. I care more about the actual content. If I've done anything in my life that has any value, I think it's that I maybe have managed to give more of a voice to the people who I call street survivors. That's what I'm really interested in."

A catalogue published by her nonprofit, Art and Education Media, listing 49 videos, illustrates the wide range of her interests. There are broad social and political subjects, including a video of a Jerry Brown "We The People" session exposing the CIA Contra connection, and, still in progress, an extensive documentary on medical marijuana.

The videos use dialogue, music and poetry, and incorporate archival material to celebrate all sorts of people, known and unknown. Three of her videos feature the renowned writer James Baldwin, who was a close friend when Claire and her husband lived in New York. She has painted a number of wonderful portraits of Baldwin which are used as backdrop in the video.

Timothy Leary is featured in a couple videos, with overlays of brilliant psychedelic designs. Another film is a tribute to Rosebud Denovo, who was killed by the police as she was protesting the U.C.'s actions in People's Park. Another documentary tells the short, tragic story of her adopted daughter Laurie, who lived with a psychiatric disorder and never got the help she needed. Laurie's death by an overdose inspired some of Claire's most passionate and compelling poems and a beautifully written book.

In October 2006, the Berkeley Unitarian Fellowship sponsored an evening of Claire Burch's films. The main feature was "Oracle Rising," a colorful, dynamic collage of the glory days of Haight Ashbury in the 1960s, and of Allen Cohen who expressed the spirit of those times in the newspaper he edited, The San Francisco Oracle.

The event's organizers also showed excerpts of a few of the films Claire has made of the people on the streets of Berkeley. These are the films that show her heart, that express the compassion and love she feels for the poor, the young, the homeless, the lost. She shows people behaving in sometimes bizarre ways -- shouting and crying, flailing their arms or jumping up and down. Although this behavior is not considered socially acceptable in public, people living on the street have no place to express themselves in private; and seeing them as Claire portrays them, somehow makes the viewer feel their pain and not be put off.

Claire can be very funny, too, even while making her points. 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 named Ralph Waldo Business Administration, and accusing her husband of having an affair with Scarlet Charlotte -- and 20th century America -- where she is trying to get on welfare, and thoroughly confusing her social worker, Dorothy (Beauty) Pageant.

But even with all the silliness, Burch conveys an understanding of critical issues of mental illness and dealing with the welfare system, and even a bit of Charles Darwin's scientific work.
Burch is 81 years old now and dealing with serious medical problems; but with every setback, she comes back more committed to her work. After a number of hospital stays in the past year that resulted in her being equipped with a pacemaker, she was back in People's Park with her camera.

Now her eyesight is deteriorating, and she is learning to cope with encroaching blindness. She still goes out and videotapes, even though she can't see clearly. With the help of a talented assistant, and equipment she has received from the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation that enlarges the images on the tapes, she can edit her material. And though it's a slow process having to use an enlarger, she can read and write.

Burch has just written a book of poetry. Talking about the videotaping and the poetry, she says, "It keeps the demons at bay. I think that's probably why I have to keep doing it."

Claire Burch's life is an inspiration, and being with her is a joy. All who know her appreciate not only what she has done, but even more, the human being that she is.

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