The path Berger took to become spokespainter for these birds hasn’t been an easy one, but she at least started with a hereditary advantage: Her father, John Berger, was a scientist, a US government meteorologist; her mother, Jewel, was an artist whose paintings appeared in juried exhibitions and sold to private collectors. Berger was born in Limerick, Ireland, where her father was setting up a weather station for the US government. When she was a toddler, her father’s work took the family to Wake Atoll, whose four square miles of dry land sat a few inches above sea level. When she was 7 the family moved again—to Anchorage, Alaska, in the midst of a blizzard. “My sister didn’t like it because she had to wear shoes for the first time in her life,” Berger recalls. But it was a great place for a future nature artist to grow up. Camping trips among moose and grizzlies were a short drive away, and her mother’s art studio was in the next room.
“My mom—she painted abstract and impressionistic, so I watched her all my life. I grew up with the smell of turpentine,” Berger says. She herself began by painting abstracts and pursued a degree in wildlife management at Humboldt State University in California, returning to Alaska’s Denali National Park to study red foxes as part of her coursework. Then one summer, a course called Representational Drawing brought her two passions together. Her first realistic painting was of a wandering Jew, a weedy vine with blue flowers known in Hawai‘i as honohono. “It blew me away,” she recalls. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God, it works!’ It was the first time I’d done something like that.”
The same week she graduated, she married another wildlife biologist and moved to a remote fire tower in Northern California: “I was the lookout, and Mark had an all-woman fire crew,” she says. Her husband eventually got a job with the Fish and Wildlife Service on the Big Island, where Berger found work with the Hawaiian Sugar Planters’ Association. She didn’t much care for the job, which involved trapping and dissecting rats, but the very-early-morning rat-catching hours gave her time to paint in the afternoons.
Then tragedy struck. “Our first baby died, and our marriage ended shortly after,” she recalls. Berger later remarried and had two more children, but her second husband died in a car crash shortly after their second child’s birth. “I was just in survival mode. I was raising two kids on my own,” she remembers. She got a job as a veterinarian’s assistant but also turned to her painting to help make ends meet. She found an appreciative clientele and sold so many paintings that she doesn’t even remember many of them now. Eventually she went back to school, got a nursing degree and found work at a local clinic, then as an overnight nurse in the psychiatric ward at Hilo Medical Center. “The job consumed me—I was exhausted all the time,” she remembers.
Then one day, “this guy called me up out of the blue.” He wanted her to paint “all the living native birds [of Hawai‘i] and to do it like Audubon. I did not take him seriously at first; I didn’t know him.” But she did some checking and found out that “he travels around the world helping conservation efforts.” And he paid her in advance.
She quit nursing to work exclusively on Endemic Birds, and she continues to work as a full-time artist today. “I’m poorer, but I have a life,” she says, “and I’m doing what I love.”