When the Cal Sailing Team asked athlete Conny Bleul-Gohlke what she could do to pitch in as a club member, she told them about her other talent — she is an artist. The sailing team immediately knew what they wanted.
"They said, 'these containers are pretty ugly,'" Bleul-Gohlke recalled, gesturing to the large cargo containers the club uses as its storage at the Berkeley Marina.
Two years later, there's not much left that Bleul-Gohlke, who came to the U.S. from Germany in 2002, has not painted at the club — most of the cargo containers, storage sheds and the walls of the clubhouse are covered with her murals. Only one large corrugated wall remains, and Bleul-Gohlke isn't sure what she will do with it yet. "I don't plan so much," she said. "I just wait and do some sketches."
For the most part, she took requests. "Most of the members are guys, yeah," said Bleul-Gohlke with a laugh. She painted warrior princess Xena wielding a blade and shield on one shed door, a macho Neptune with trident on a wall, and on a container Superman flies to protect a voluptuous yet masculine-looking Lois Lane, seated on a surfboard and covered only with a towel.
"Usually people come here and they say the place looks so much nicer," said Bleul-Gohlke. "But one person came and said, 'You can't paint naked ladies here!'"
Bleul-Gohlke, who studied art in college, also paints indoor murals and kitchenware. She loves trompe l'oeil, a style of painting that creates optical illusions, like painted faux doorways and windows, that "brings imagination into a space," she said.
One of her most memorable trompe l'oeil projects in Berkeley was a bedroom forest mural for children who were mourning the loss of their father. "The kids didn't want to sleep in their room anymore," she said.
She asked the children what they liked, and painted it — turning their room into a forest full of animals and bugs with big eyes. She was touched by the children's excitement when they first saw their newly painted room. "They moved back into the room," she said. The children told her they stare at the animals to fall asleep.
Painting courageously in Berkeley
At the Berkeley Marina, Bleul-Gohlke's favorite memories are of the sailing club members helping her paint her murals. They prime the surfaces for painting and brush on large sections of color. "I like that people have the feeling they participated — and I don't have to spend hours painting one square!"
Club members are quick to gush about Bleul-Gohlke's work. Heidi Kearsley, the vice commodore of the sailing club, said the murals have transformed their section of the marina. "She's made it beautiful," Kearsley said.
"She has a big family, but she still finds the time to contribute this," said member Jurek Bruzda, who said he appreciates how Bleul-Gohlke works rain or shine.
Bleul-Gohlke's day job is work as a doula, providing support and advice during childbirth. Some days, she goes to the marina to paint while she waits for the call that a woman has gone into labor.
"When I look back, I've done a lot of art in Germany, but it's very different," she said. "As everything is so tolerant and open here in Berkeley, it gives you more opportunities to be courageous."
From Germany to Berkeley
At least one mural at the marina is a memory of Bleul-Gohlke's: the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989. On the back of the clubhouse, she recreated a famous painting from the wall, of a blue car crashing through it surrounded by faux cracks.
Bleul-Gohlke, 45, moved to Berkeley from Germany in 2002 for her husband's job at a pharmaceutical company. "We came here and the plan was to stay 11 months, my husband and I and our son," she said. "Now we have three kids."
One reason the family stayed in Berkeley was because the area re-ignited Bleul-Gohlke's swimming career. In the 1980's, she had been a member of Germany's national swim team, and a five-time world champion, she said. "I was on the Olympic team in 1984, but I couldn't go because I had an accident," she said, referring to a skiing accident that injured her leg.
But she was amazed when, 18 years later, she went to and was invited to swim on the Berkeley Aquatic Masters team by coach Blythe Lucero, at age 36.
"The coach here said, 'Why don't you try for nationals here? You're still so fast!'" she remembered. "I trained like hell."
Life as a U.S. Masters swimmer
Bleul-Gohlke went on to achieve four national short course championship titles as a U.S. Masters swimmer. She won the local Alcatraz swim twice, a badge of honor. "That was the scariest race I've ever done in my life, with the wind and the cold," she said.
She still swims at least three times a week at King Pool. "My coach said, 'Bring the kids,' and she carried them around," said Bleul-Gohlke. Her youngest children, 5 year-old Finn and 6 year-old Hanna, aren't quite old enough yet to make strides in the pool, but her oldest, Nils, 14, is now a successful swimmer himself.
Making use of her PhD in Sports Science, Bleul-Gohlke co-wrote "Masters Swimming: A Manual" with Lucero, published in 2006.
Bleul-Gohlke credits her hours of intensive training as an athlete with her ability to multitask. "It helped me a lot with how to be efficient with things," she said. "To take care of my house and my kids and still have something for myself."
To see more of Bleul-Gohlke's art, visit artbyconny.vpweb.com.