Bertha: Photos of a Life Lived on the Margins of Aberdeen

Last Updated by Michael Zimny on

Jim Groth was living in Aberdeen. It was the mid-seventies and he’d recently graduated from Northern State with an art degree. He was driving a road on the edge of town when he saw a woman herding a small flock of sheep. “I just thought she would be an interesting subject to photograph. So a few days later I went out and introduced myself.”

The two became friends. From 1976-79, Groth compiled an until-now, mostly unseen photo essay on Bertha Schuchard and her solitary, austere way of life.

Bertha opens Friday, October 13 at IPSO Gallery in Sioux Falls. The opening reception is from 6-8pm, free and open to all. The show is the first entry in IPSO’s new Mystic October series.  

“I would check on her and go see her,” says Groth. "Sometimes I would shoot pictures. Sometimes I wouldn’t. We would walk around the yard and she would talk about different trees, where this tree came from. She had a stone fireplace and she would point out different rocks — ‘This one I found here,’ ‘this one was special to me.’”

“[Her home] was this cool cottage. The roof, when it came down, curled under toward the house. You could see that at one point it was this really cool place. The furniture, that was all covered with boxes and newspapers, was all fine furniture. The house was small, but it had an elegance and aesthetic to it. It was on Roosevelt Street, which at that time was on the East edge of Aberdeen. When it was built it would have been more out in the country away from town. Then the town kind of grew to her.”

Groth spent more than a few hours in that house and Bertha made a lasting impression on the young artist.

“She was really an independent woman. She was about eighty years old when I met her. She lived by herself. She had a little acreage out there. She had a few sheep, and cats and a dog.”  

Bertha lived through Aberdeen winters with no heat but what a wood burning cook could provide, in her little cabin full of old newspapers. She wore clothes held together with safety pins. But her life wasn’t defined by deprivation. 

“I remember going to visit her in the winter and the cat’s water dish was frozen solid. But she lived that way. She was preoccupied with just living day-to-day. When it was cold in the winter, she’d spend a lot of time by her cook stove keeping warm. She would heat things up on her stove that she would spread out on her bed to keep warm at night. In the summer, she was outside a lot. She just lived day-to-day. The next day — whatever that would bring, that’s what she would do. It was tough sometimes.”

“But she survived and she was always happy when you saw her. She was pretty amazing that way. She lived a very stark existence but she was a survivor. She didn’t have things in her life like anger and regrets. I think I learned [from her] that we don’t need a lot of stuff in our lives to live and be happy. Life is what you make it yourself.”

There were signs — like the fine furniture buried beneath the old newspapers and boxes — that she could have lived a different life. “She had gotten a college degree, which was unusual for a woman in that era [she was born in 1897]. She was an excellent painter. And she was divorced, which was also unusual. She saw a lot of history develop.”

“She was a strong woman who did what she wanted and wasn’t afraid to be by herself and make her life what she wanted it to be.”

"Bertha" is on display at the IPSO Gallery in Sioux Falls"Bertha" is on display at the IPSO Gallery in Sioux Falls

Talking to Groth, it’s clear that the time he spent with her had a profound impact on him, but hard to extract much more than a basic sketch of who Bertha was. Out of all their conversations, he can’t recall much detail about her former life — what she majored in at college, much of anything about her family, or how she got by. He often describes her as a “beautiful person,” but has a hard time articulating why. ("She was just a nice person to be around.") That’s where the photographs come in. If Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa evokes — probably better than any hagiographer ever could — the rapture Teresa of Avila found in solitude, then Groth’s photo of Bertha — holding a stone in a bare, darkened room, face beaming, illuminated as if by divine light — conveys what words can’t explain. 

“There’s two sides to this show,” says Groth. “One is the story of Bertha. The other is the aesthetics of black and white photography. All of the images were printed full negative — whatever was on the film is in the print. It was a purist thing that I was into back then. These are darkroom silver gelatin prints from negatives, that were shot before digital photography — where you use the mechanics of light to make your images what they are.” 

There’s a symbiosis between those two sides. 

Bertha was a woman who lived on the outskirts of a different era of Aberdeen, on the margins of society. She came from North Dakota but might as well have come from a different world. She lived in small town in South Dakota and didn’t drive. Her very existence was like a quiet act of defiance. Does anyone in this world even drive an old car any more? 

She’s an anomaly teetering on the edge of extinction. Today, a person trying to make a life for themselves outside the grind is like a wildflower enveloped in a sea of Roundup-resistant turf grass. Like an old black-and-white struggling to justify its presence on Instagram. 

Each observer will interpret the photos in their own way, but many (I think) will sense a potency in Bertha’s persona, adroitly captured by Groth’s camera. If time is linear, the temporal prairie she inhabits has been left behind, but there’s something of a revelation in knowing she was there.

“I think through hearing her story," says Groth, "and seeing the images, I think people will come up with their own narrative. I’m hoping they'll see what a beautiful person she was."

subscribe to sdpb email updates food blog link image learning blog link image living blog link news and information blog link science and technology blog link sports blog link image

Related content from SDPB Radio - Art

The Enduring Simplicity (And Complexity) Of Michael Hall

In The Moment ... September 20. 2018 Show 426 Hour 2 Michael Hall writes picture books that delight and endure. He's...

Art That Takes You Home

In The Moment ... July 18, 2018 Show 381 Hour 2 Jon Crane creates "Art that Takes You Home." After a tour at...

Renowned Artists Visit Oscar Howe Summer Art Institute

In The Moment ... June 19, 2018 Show 361 Hour 2 Art can be meditation, expression, activism, and escape. It can also...

Eagle Butte Artists Learn Tips To Flourish

Artists who turn their passion into a business venture can find it a challenge. They need to figure out the details...


The Multiple Hearts Of Laura Geringer Bass

In The Moment ... September 20. 2018 Show 426 Hour 2 When 13 year-old Briana's dad dies suddenly, she is faced with...

Read, Baby, Read: What's America's Best-Loved Novel?

In The Moment ... May 22, 2018 Show 342 Hour 1 What's America's best-loved novel? You get to decide. PBS launches...

Author Kirk Wallace Johnson's "The Feather Thief"

In the Moment ... May 1, 2018 Show 327 Hour 1 The centuries-old art of salmon fishing fly-tying has a dark side. It...

Jane Yolen Celebrates #Yolen365 And Counting

In The Moment ... April 26, 2018 Show 324 Hour 1 In March, author Jane Yolen released her 365th book. That means you...


Matthews Opera House Season Preview

In The Moment ... September 26. 2018 Show 430 Hour 2 The Matthews Opera House subscription concert series begins...

Fun Approach To Music Theory

Andrew Rogers – in home music lessons designed for children and young adults. Uses a unique teaching style that...

The Literary Style of Reina del Cid

Reina del Cid kicks off her summer tour with a stop in Sioux Falls at the Icon Lounge. She joins SDPB's Lori Walsh...

Eric Johnson Returns For Black Hills Playhouse Opener

In The Moment ... May 29, 2018 Show 346 Hour 2 Leave the ordinary behind at this year's Black Hills Playhouse Season...


Broadway Choreographer Chet Walker

In the Moment ... April 9, 2018 Show 311 Hour 1 The University of South Dakota Theater Department presents "Cabaret"...

Images of the Past: Stage To Screen

In The Moment ... November 27, 2017 Show 227 Hour 2 A new exhibit at the Old Courthouse Museum tells the story of...

Personalities: From Huron High to Broadway

Singer, actor, and teacher Joseph Mahowald graduated from Huron High School in 1977. He went on to study music and...

In The Moment ... Alex Meyer's Scenic Design

In The Moment ... May 10, 2017 Show 090 Hour 2 Alex Meyer. He's a junior art and theater major at Augustana College...