After 15 years in the industry, Sara Berman swapped a burgeoning fashion career to go back to school and become a painter. This transition involved winding down the eponymous label she and her sister built over a decade, to navigating the waters of art school alongside motherhood and forging a new persona as an artist. But Berman isn’t one to shy away from a challenge.
Her lusciously layered works are an exploration of boundaries, and a commentary on how our identities emerge from and blur into the objects that surrounds us. Already an established international artist since graduating from Slade School of Fine Art two years ago, Berman has found sanctuary and fresh perspective in her artist studio in north London. And she’s only getting started.
Wilma: I thought we might start with your studio. Do you have a routine?
Sara Berman: Yes, I’m obsessive. I think people have this idea of artists being freewheeling and maybe some are. I’m not. I come by at 09:30 every day. I turn on the computer, I open the curtains because it gets really cold and I need some sun! And if I’ve got something practical to do, I tend to do that first, like priming a canvas, bills. And then I’ll start mixing my paints, gradually.
Wilma: So you warm yourself up in a way….
SB: Yes, I warm myself up and there’s a lot of pacing and looking. It’s a real sanctuary. I didn’t have a studio space before I did my Masters. I’m in my own little world for hours. I don’t know how I managed before I had this much space.
Wilma: The transition you made from being a designer to an artist – was the decision made slowly?
SB: Yes, and no. I think my sister and I had both been unhappy in the business. We were business partners for years. The big crash in 2008 was a real turning point for us because we nearly lost control of the business. But we saved it and managed to turn it around and it was in even better shape than it had ever been. Which left us with a problem – that we now hated what we were doing yet it was making more money than it ever had.
Wilma: Did you face a lot of opposition?
SB: No, our team were amazing. They struggled with us when things were shitty, and really pulled together and made it work. It was a business so you can’t just close it overnight. We had to slowly wind things down and go through the proper channels – meet obligations we had standing and allow staff time to find new jobs. It also gave me time to get a portfolio together and apply to Slade, so it worked out brilliantly. But the decision was tough and I felt very guilty. I’d worked really hard and it felt like an outrageous thing to do. Although in retrospect it felt like the only possible solution.
Wilma: Going back to study, did you have people question the move?
SB: I think I felt that myself. I was really insecure when I got to Slade and I felt like other people were looking at me and thinking ‘what the fuck are you doing here?’ But in fact it was entirely in my head. I think people were more interested than anything. And in fact, my tutors realised the value of my background before I did.
I’d worked really hard and it felt like an outrageous thing to do
Wilma: So you felt supported…
SB: Yes, absolutely. It was difficult being a 40-year-old woman at art school because I had three children and I didn’t feel I could be a part of the cohort as much as I would have liked. And my own insecurities held me back. Being an artist, you feel so insecure, it’s such a pathetic indulgent insecurity but we all have it! I made appalling work, the worst work anyone has ever seen, for at least 18 months. Then suddenly it started to become apparent that I had a methodology of my own that I could believe in. The more I paint, the more I realise that ‘making’ is central. I’m a maker, I wouldn’t even say I’m a painter.
Wilma: You’ve talked previously about games and boundaries…
SB: I do that with everything. I like that structure and challenge to myself. It gives me something to push against – ‘am I justified in this decision?’ The more I work, the less I know about painting, but the more I learn about my decision making. The artist Laura Owens said a brilliant thing, along the lines of, ‘if artists didn’t choose to be artists, they would definitely have considered world domination, sainthood or mass murder’. I totally get that! We live in worlds of our own making and feel totally justified.
Wilma: Are the concerns the same in your current works made with lint?
SB: Yes, I think some of the concerns are the same. Materiality is really central to my work and that comes from my background. The paintings are highly curated interior explorations of time and place-based work. They are a ready-made embodiment of my concerns around ‘making’ and value systems around making and manufacturing. I also find them very beautiful and compelling in quite an abject way because they are essentially made up of the hair and the dust and the stuff that’s left behind from our bodies, from within our clothes.
Wilma: So it’s almost another body….
SB: It’s another body in another space which I’m fascinated by – the bodies and spaces created by bodies. And of course it’s very loaded in terms of thread and lint linking to domesticity which I choose not to really go into. I don’t feel I’m an engendered painter.
Wilma: Does it bother you, that the moment a female artist depicts an interior or the body, it’s seen as inherently ‘female’?
SB: It’s not my problem. I don’t make these paintings to make a political statement. These are just the paintings I make and I enjoy making them. I don’t have a political agenda with my work although people might say it politicises the woman who might work at home. I do think there’s value in critics drawing their conclusions and that’s absolutely brilliant. That’s their job. It’s not mine though.
My husband says it’s like living in a bazaar that doesn’t know what country it’s in!
Wilma: Speaking of identity, you have mentioned previously the term ‘museum of self’?
SB: Yes, I just think it’s how we define ourselves. One of the things about fashion I loved, then hated and now love again is this idea of people constructing an identity. I think we do that with clothes, armchairs, rugs, vases and necklaces and so on. All these things we choose are just ways of expressing how we want other people to see us. Or how we want to see ourselves. And I think that we need to be honest. Towards the end of working in fashion I didn’t feel particularly giving or loving towards other human beings. And I actually am quite a loving person. I think those things that people show of themselves should be loved. When you see somebody with their favourite red scarf, I might think ‘I love that about them!’.
Wilma: Do you recognise your own ‘museum of self’ when you walk around your house?
SB: Yeah! My husband says it’s like living in a bazaar that doesn’t know what country it’s in! I’ve got an obsession with rugs. I love them and the house is covered with them. I collect mad stuff I find or people have given me. They tend to be sentimental more than anything else and there are definitely lots of worthless things that mean a huge amount to me. I had a monstrously large pink Buddha that came back from Hong Kong once. Everyone just went ‘nooooooo’. I just thought ‘it’s pink, it has gold bits on it, it is definitely coming home!’. My husband is a minimalist and he just said ‘you’re fucking kidding me’.
Wilma: Is there a minimalist place in your house?
SB: No… there isn’t. We’ve been together for more than 20 years and I think some things you just have to accept are to be left as they are.
AJ: How did you find balancing kids, studying and now running an established practice.
SB: I constantly feel guilty. But I don’t know any other way. At the studio I stay as late as I can, bearing in mind that once or twice a week I want to pick the kids up from clubs, see them before bed and hang out with them in the evenings. I’m rigorous about my work. I don’t take breaks during the day. I’ll go grab a sandwich, not meet friends for lunch and I don’t make evening arrangements until after the kids’ bedtime. If I’m not with the kids, I’m working. But you just have to do it. It’s important. It’s my job.
Wilma: When you’re outside the studio, what do you do to get inspired?
SB: I’m quite targeted about what I go see. But in the summer it gets easier because I can go to openings and I take my little one with me and I feel like I’m achieving two birds with one stone. There are loads of galleries and shows I could talk about but I just really like going to Camden Art Centre. Or my bed. If I could be anywhere apart from the studio right now, it would be my bed.
Wilma: Do you ever work there?
SB: All the time! I do collages in bed; I lie there watching Poirot or a deep sea documentary – whatever mindless thing I can put on. I listen to Jack Reacher. I’m absolutely obsessed with him! I listen to it as an audiobook narrated by Jeff Harding. I know his voice, staccato – there’s a resonance to it. It’s like the Mills & Boon of the Action genre.
Wilma: Do you listen to music in the studio?
SB: It’s generally audiobooks or a bit of Nina Simone if I need to chill out, or Everything but the Girl, Radiohead, Portishead, Massive Attack. I’m really disrupted by other people being in my space though. Even when I was sharing a studio with a best friend of more than 20 years it was distracting. When I’m in the bubble I don’t want to be disturbed.
Wilma: Are there certain things you wear in the studio? A uniform of sorts.
SB: Well the jumper goes on top of the one I’m already wearing today and then if it’s very cold, a fur gilet goes on top. My friends joke that I look like a Cossack! And then I’m fully insulated against the cold, but you need to be if it’s winter and you’re going for twelve hours.
You can follow Sara Berman on Instagram @sarabermanartist
Stay tuned for Berman's forthcoming solo show in LA.