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Dulcimer maker opens up conversation about relationship between health and art

black and white headshot of Doug Berch, an older white man with a beard wearing a t-shirt and button-up and a black hat
Courtesy
/
Doug Berch

Michigan State University’s Broad Art Museum is hosting a panel discussion Friday night about disability and art.

It explores how artists navigate their health conditions through their creative practices.

Dulcimer maker and musician, Doug Berch has spent most of his life living with a chronic spinal inflammatory disease and is a panelist for Friday's discussion. He’ll be joined by two other artists: poet and storyteller, Carolyn White, and sculptor and painter, Richard Tanner.

WKAR’s Megan Schellong spoke with Berch about the panel and how he continues to pursue his passion despite his health condition.

Interview Highlights

On how his health condition affects his daily life

I basically find there's two things: there's dealing with a certain amount of pain, but the real issue is more how it affects functionality, my ability to move, to do the work I do, you know, let alone things like you know, housework, stuff like that, things that were simple at one time in my life and more challenging now.

On how he fell in love with the dulcimer

When I was a teenager, I developed a passion for music, and I heard a dulcimer and something just resonated strongly with me. And you know, like anything you find something you're passionate about and it's kind of you know, it's kind of like, why did you fall in love with one person instead of another? There's something going on there, and something in you resonates and for whatever reason, it becomes a priority of focus and attention.

On living with his disability

I think it's important for anyone living with a disability subtly or severe, to identify with the things that make them feel alive and not create their identity around their illness. Early on when I first started having problems and realized that no one seems to know what's going on, and this isn't going away very quickly, I looked at friends of mine who were dealing with less than I was and friends who were dealing with more than I was. And the ones who seemed to be having the best time were the people who looked at whatever their health issue was as background noise while they were living their life.

dulcimer
Courtesy
/
Doug Berch
A dulcimer made by Doug Berch.

Interview Transcript

Megan Schellong: Michigan State University’s Broad Art Museum is hosting a panel discussion tonight about disability and art.

It explores how artists navigate their health conditions through their creative practices.

Local dulcimer maker and musician, Doug Berch has spent most of his life living with a chronic spinal inflammatory disease and is a panelist for tonight’s discussion.

Doug, thanks for being here.

Doug Berch: Thanks for having me.

Schellong: Can you tell us a little bit about how your condition impacts your daily life?

Berch: You know, I basically find there's two things: there's dealing with a certain amount of pain, but the real issue is more how it affects functionality, my ability to move, to do the work I do, you know, let alone things like you know, housework, stuff like that. Things that were simple at one time in my life are more challenging now.

Schellong: Doug, despite your, you know, the chronic pain that you experience with your condition, you've been playing the dulcimer for several decades now, what do you love most about it?

Berch: You know, I don't know why, but when I was a teenager, I developed a passion for music, and I heard a dulcimer and something just resonated strongly with me. And you know, like anything, you find something you're passionate about and it's kind of, you know, it's kind of like, why did you fall in love with one person instead of another? There's something going on there, and something in you resonates and for whatever reason, it becomes a priority of focus and attention.

Schellong: Doug, can you play a little bit of the dulcimer for us? And is this one of the dulcimers you've made yourself?

Berch: Um, yes, it certainly is. I'll play a little something here.

[Doug plays for about 30 seconds]

Schellong: Doug, what did we just hear? That was lovely.

Berch: I don't know my wife and I have been trying to figure out what it is. I've been playing it lately. And I know I heard it somewhere. It's probably an old folk song or a hymn or something, but I just don't know.

Schellong: It’s beautiful, it sounded lovely. How has playing the dulcimer and the dulcimer-making process helped you emotionally and spiritually with your chronic pain?

It's almost like a meditation, you get such a complete focus that it overrides anything else going on.

Berch: You know, I think for anyone that's dealing with anything, if you have something that totally captivates you and you feel that passion and connection, it's almost like a meditation. You get such a complete focus that it overrides anything else going on.

So, sometimes I'll be working, and suddenly I realize, “Oh, I've got one hand on the workbench because I'm leaning because I'm really starting to hurt.” And it takes me a while to realize that because I was so focused on what I was doing. So, sometimes I run into the problem of not pushing myself too much because I tend to err on trying to stay active and have to remember to pull back every now and then, which I prefer. I'd always rather push the limits than not challenge myself.

Schellong: Tonight's panel centers around the relationship between health and art. How did you become involved with the panel? And what do you hope audience members can gain from the conversation?

Berch: The guy who's going to be chairing the panel, Jake Rowan, is an osteopath I go to at MSU, who for many years has been helping me keep moving and functioning. And basically, you know, someone from the exhibit asked him if he knew anyone that would be someone that would be appropriate for this panel. So, he asked if I would be involved.

And what I would really like people to get out of it is the awareness that everyone is usually passionate about something.

I think it's important for anyone living with a disability subtly or severe, to identify with the things that make them feel alive and not create their identity around their illness.

But, that I think it's important for anyone living with a disability subtly or severe, to identify with the things that make them feel alive and not create their identity around their illness.

Early on when I first started having problems and realized that no one seems to know what's going on, and this isn't going away very quickly, I looked at friends of mine who were dealing with less than I was and friends who were dealing with more than I was.

And the ones who seemed to be having the best time were the people who looked at whatever their health issue was as background noise while they were living their life.

And the people who made the focus of their life their illness, which of course you have to do from time to time, just seem to be not enjoying themselves as much.

So I just want people to know that no matter what you're dealing with, there's something you can do.

So, I just want people to know that no matter what you're dealing with, there's something you can do.

Schellong: Doug Berch is a local dulcimer maker and musician, and he is a panelist on tonight’s discussion about health and art at the MSU Broad Art Museum. Doug, thanks for joining me.

Berch: Thanks for having me.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

Megan Schellong is the local host and producer for Morning Edition on WKAR.
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