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Interview: Ian Berry

Updated: Feb 22, 2022

For far too long, I've been borderline obsessed with the work of Ian Berry, who makes art out of denim jeans. Denim is his medium for seeing the world, his paint, and what a material to use in this modern world; with all its symbols and dualities, as well as being such a common item of clothing that unites many around the globe. The scissors are his paintbrush and he handles them with virtuosity. His artworks are the ultimate in upcycling and have been displayed in museums, galleries, department stores, and denim stores all over the world.

In conversation with Ian Berry about not being a 'denim artist', his love for blue and the evolution of his creative practice over 15+ years:

You have created such a niche for yourself with your denim experiments. How did you get involved with textile art, and denim in particular?

IB: It was at the end of university, I had made a collage out of newspaper of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown (then the leaders of the UK government and Labour Party) and I went to my family home. And my mum wanted me to empty a lot of the old things from my room and there was a pile of jeans, my old jeans. I saw the shades and thought 'I could use the same principle of the newspaper collage to create faces'.

I was much more interested in street art at the time, and knew little of textile art. It’s actually interesting to think textile art has become ‘cool’ and changed perceptions and street art, while still big, has become less so than what it had been. I don’t fully consider myself a textile artist though, I’m an artist first and foremost. Too many textile artists hem themselves in with only thinking within textile art.

These were the days before social media and even in the early years of the internet. There were no ‘how to’ guides to how to make art with jeans, and I spent many years perfecting techniques and experimenting and – making errors! I actually miss those years. The strong thing that came through, though, was feeling my own connection to denim, but then more so, when people got to see them, other peoples' connection to it.

How did you develop your style over the years?

IB: When I started, the designs were of course a lot more simple than they are now, I could make a piece within a day. Now it takes me months and also, I use the denim in a different way. I would then use denim to almost make it obvious, like hey ‘this is jeans’. Now I use the same bits, the hems, seams and so on to make it look like a painting and not obvious that the fact that it's denim.

I had to make my own handwriting with the material and one of my key things is how to depict how light hits things like a shiny bar top, metallic launderette or translucent water. From a matt material. I love that I’m often described as ‘Ian Berry makes denim shine’ as it is quite something from what you think is quite a matt material.

Ian's denim installation at Textilmuseet

On Instagram, you write that you're not a denim artist, but make art out of denim jeans. Why do you highlight this difference? Are there a lot of 'denim artists' out there who feel inauthentic?

IB: Well.. there’s a few reasons for this. I guess to start with it’s the same as the word 'textile artist'. I’m an artist. A ‘denim artist’ sounds gimmicky. My work isn’t about it being made in denim, it's much more than that. Remember how long I have been doing it, the term first reminded me of the words, clip art, which I bet your younger readers won’t have a clue about!

But as you ask the question, the latter is a bit about this too. Because the denim industry is full of some of the most questionable characters you could think of meeting I often get asked by brands and the worse culprits, mills (most won’t know or think about them, they’re the ones who make the denim) to do something with them. I find it odd, but copying is common place and an everyday occurrence in the denim industry and a way of life. I rarely speak of it in public, but as I spoke above about handwriting, it can be hard to see it all over someone else's work. The internet can be a great thing but it’s a way for people with different morals and ethics to see things, and as they are brought up in places where copying is commonplace, it's normalised, with no shame. I think on the whole, these things have been great commercials for the brands and countries they come from as it emphasises the cliches and stereotypes they already have. This is sad, as I know many nice people from the same countries too.

I, however, am quite grateful. It pushed me to be better, to be ahead, to show in museums and the right contexts with the work. My work is not about denim, or for denim. Denim is for everyone, and most won’t have a clue about the industry behind it, and shouldn’t, I know way too much. I think if I knew as much about food production as I do denim, I wouldn’t eat. Luckily, I know the few good ones trying to be better within the industry but there is a lot of duality with the material I also made my life.

What is your routine like on a typical day? Are there personal rituals or habits that have kept you going creatively for all these years?

IB: I go through period where I can work in the studio 16/18 hours a day for 7 days a week and then other periods, probably normally around shows and after, where I can go a couple of months not going in the studio at all. There is a lot of work to do ‘not working with denim’ in terms the prep or the planning. I do have a theory though, and told to me via another artist, Empty Studio Syndrome. I often come back from shows to an empty studio and I do find that I work better around my work; it shows you what you can do and motivates you. I always intend to half start a piece to come back and carry on after returning but after 15 years, I still have not been able to do this.

I'd love to understand your process to make a work. I remember reading that you call it photorealism but it does feel closer to painting or collaging with patches of denim.

IB: I really admire the art for example Richard Estes and the photorealism. Some photorealism can be seen now as boring as, why? When there is photography. But it is a certain skill and someone like Estes made his own style with it and the drama excites me.

When I started, I was thinking I would go more abstract. I was doing portraits and started to think of making them more in the style of how an artist uses a palette knife. I thought I was going to push it more in directions toward abstraction with rips. But I found it a challenge to create photorealism with denim...using the denim in ways to help create a feel of realism. Of course, as I have my foot in many worlds, some can call it collage, and it is, but it's only one material and also quite three dimensional yet not really sculpture. There are sometimes 15 layers of denim that you don’t see online. Others often call it painting with denim (those silly social media sharing accounts). I am painting without paint but using the same principles as a painter uses light and dark and tones to create my images.

Something many don’t realise is that I work from my own photography, so the process starts long before a piece of denim is cut. There are many artists out there today that feel the internet is just a place to take, and rip images off but there must be a better way. I have probably taken 100 times more photos than I have turned into denim but it’s more authentic and it is mine.

Right. I'm sure you've been asked this often but why denim? Is it a fascination with the textile itself and the possibilities it offers or more to do with your love for blue and all its hues?

IB: How to answer this question in a short way...At the start, it was just an observation but then I realised my love for denim. This wasn’t from an angle of a denim expert, and I feel sometimes tainted by knowing too much about the industry – and how it is now. Denim now is not what it was. It’s not made the same way nor in the same places. But that duality, the sign of freedom, democracy and so on is on one side, with the negative effects on the environment, where it has become too big, stands for capitalism, mass, ubiquity, on the other. But it is that what makes it the perfect medium for my art. I fight against it, but I often say I use it in how I portray contemporary life and urban life, and I don’t think there is a better item to use to symbolise this than the material of our time. Denim jeans.

I have realised only lately that I think it is the shade of indigo that I love as much as it being jeans. It can lead to this melancholy feel, but while blue is seen as a cold colour, I find a deep indigo can be warm. That aside, as I have said my work isn’t about it being made in denim or for denim. Most of my work is portraying the changing fading fabric of our urban environment and our lives within it. Denim is just my paint, not my point.

Behind Closed Doors

How would you describe your relationship and love for denim art in general?

IB: I think the relationship with denim has changed a lot of the last two decades. I know a lot about the material now, but don’t think that still makes me a better artist. You need not be an expert to wear jeans or feel comfortable with them. I don’t want knowing too much to conflict with my art.

Do you have a favorite shade of blue?

IB: Indigo! Blue is my favourite colour and also the colour of my football team, Huddersfield Town. I’d love to visit there to find out more about Indigo.

What are some challenges you face while working with denim? Are there moments when you get tired of this labour-intensive process?

IB: When I am working away, I am happy – even if I get to the end of the day and think is that all I have done, giving the slow process of making. Of course, there are tricky moments, the detail in my work can be so small that you must take care not to let the material fray. You also can’t mix denim like paint, I have to find all the denim shades to use and I have about 3000 pairs of denim and have to match up all the shades correctly. I don’t bleach it, dye it or paint on top of it. Only when seen in person does my work look good and people understand this. On social media, people often ask, ‘what paint have you used on top of the denim.’ I even have journalists who have written about me for years without seeing then seem gobsmacked when they finally see it.

How has the pandemic affected your creative practice? What were your biggest challenges you faced?

IB: It affected it but in a much different way. I saw other artists lose their jobs, and have shows cancelled or postponed. And that often was in the city, or country where they lived. I somehow had most of mine go ahead and all in foreign countries, and it was hard. With all the added quarantines, paperwork, testing, shipping issues with COVID and of course, Brexit, it added a whole new layer. To make it worse, it also made it harder as while there was more work, there was less people able to travel. I had clients who would have loved to have seen the shows in Germany and Holland for example, but couldn’t travel. But it was great though as many people did see the work.

A big problem is as I say I work from photography and the week of lockdown in the UK was the week I had set up to make the photoshoots. With several shows coming and as well as a European tour, I had to rethink what I was going to do and in honesty, it forced me to look around my own surroundings, sometimes we overlook what is around us. It ended up with me remaking my living room in denim. That sofa is the very sofa I lay on while struggling with COVID on Christmas day last year!

I’m not a big fan of the online world. I’m always busy and find it hard to always keep up with it, also I find myself saying my real life is a lot better than my online life, which when you stand back, is bizarre. I think most people find it to be the other way around. But with the pandemic, I noticed more going toward online, and I think it is making me think of how I can bring the story and the quality of the work to be seen online not just in person.

What is inspiring you right now?

IB: I have spent a lot of time trying to avoid the sustainability message. While obviously people have been talking about it for decades, it's only become trendy in the last decade, more so the last few years. But I’ve always said that my art isn’t about this message. And I have not wanted to look like I'm jumping on the bandwagon; it's ok for people to talk about it in connection to my work and recycling, but I hardly felt like I'm changing the word with what I do. I also have found a bad feeling toward the word 'sustainability'. It literally is a nothing word. I know too many people who have been lying in about it in the denim and other industries, and really haven’t wanted to get involved with a word that is so tainted. It’s meaningless.

As I say, I’m recycling, upcycling or whatever buzz word one may want to use but for me, it has to be more than that: the medium hasn’t been the message. It’s been hard not to be immersed by all the bad side of the material I use and with all the talk, and anxiety about the planet and with COP26 going on, I'm feeling drawn to these issues.

And no, this is not a reaction to the trend. I was going to study climate change at uni. I did really well at Geography at college, and has always been one of my interests and I was watching An Inconvenient Truth as I was working on some of my first piece in denim. It’s weird: I was going to go back to uni to do it after I studied advertising and not sure if I wanted to follow that career path. It was the same time I started working with denim, and its so funny how then I hardly connected the two (it would be obvious in today’s world). I just know so many frauds with the sustainability message and I wouldn’t want to capitalise on it with what I’m doing as I have to do a lot more to earn that right. But perhaps the medium can become the message.

At the start of the pandemic, you started the #Iclapfor projection campaign with your son Elliott as a reaction to the clapping that took off around the world. Please tell us about the campaign, and your takeaway from it.

IB: Well, first, it happened by accident. And then went out of control. As I said, unlike many artists I had things going on and not cancelled. I really tried, not to do anything. Not that I didn’t care, but I’m not really someone to jump on a trend. Perhaps I’m a cynic. My son made a rainbow and then wanted to make more art, he had loved and was overwhelmed by the clapping noise from out balcony – as was I – so when he wanted to make more art when sitting with me, he wanted to make clapping hands. Of course, the action of clapping needs more than one so we made two, one open and one closed, he took the photo of mine and we made it in denim. I then animated it. We were just going to send it to his auntie and other friends who worked on the frontline.

Then, while watching a Disney film on the projector, he asked if we could project it from the house and soon, we were beaming it outside. As my building has a big roof that can be seen from miles around, we tried it on that. However my projector didn’t work so well, and I looked in to get another. It led me to a guy called Andrew Hall in Newcastle, UK, and well, that's when the whole thing really started. After about half an hour of talking, I ended up showing him what I wanted to do, and he loved the idea. He then offered to project it in Newcastle, and through his network, it was lit through beacons all over the country and then through my network, across the world. It ended up in dozens of countries worldwide and most of the towns and cities in the UK, and then on hospitals. It was even used to launch a project called Pin Your Thanks to unveil badges for thanks for the frontline from the likes of Ringo Starr and Kiera Knightly – and of course, the clapping hands on the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank, it was even made into a mural.

It was very stressful though, as it was involving Elliott and my art and came from a good place yet I know live in a toxic country. The clapping in the first weeks was so positive and from the ground up, in New York it stayed positive, and everyday, for even longer. But you may have seen how divisive our politics are. The media is also getting pretty shoddy and celebrity-obsessed. Each week, the clapping would come around and on TV, it started showing kids on cul-de-sacs but in later weeks, it showed Boris, the Kier, the leader of the opposition clapping, it changed the whole context. Division came in and the clapping became politicised. This project asked Who do you clap for?, it became so individual, people were talking about individuals, family, friends, and also not just the medical fraternity, but all kinds of people out there. How can one begrudge someone clapping for their son, daughter, Mum, Dad?

It was out of my hands and people were projecting it all over the world, so I stepped away. I didn’t want my son and my art to be linked with it all and put at risk of spoiling it. It was tough as I knew good people were organising events and for those we had clapped for. In the end, it raised some money and at the beginning many people appreciated it. People were very receptive and thankful at hospitals too. I had been worried as it had started to get political but then again, I was probably doing what others do…believing all the voices that are normally just loud people with an agenda on Twitter – the people that are killing the world.

What are you presently working on? Is there something right now that you're trying to learn or master?

IB: I’ve actually just returned from Sweden where I opened up a large solo exhibition at the country's National Textile Museum, Textil Museet. It shows some older work from my different collections, on loan from clients and with each one, designer Jonathan Christopher from the Netherlands used each one to inspire garments. It was fun to look at my work from this perspective and in many ways, it brought the show together. I also worked with TWOOD, who makes this amazing wood out of denim. She made a denim guitar and drum kit to go with my album collection. It was nice to work with others as I’ve only had solo shows in my career otherwise.

But you asked what I am working on and surprisingly, this is shown in the museum. It’s the first time I have shown a ‘work in progress’ piece but really now, it is an installation. It shows many of the portraits I have been working on for a body of work called in working title Denim Legends, where I go against all I have said above and make some work about the material that is my medium. I have been asking people who their denim legends are, the people who by wearing jeans, others followed. It may seem unusual to the young, but there was a time when people didn’t just go to the wardrobe and pull out a pair. These icons are some of the major reasons why. Now I ask the question in the museum and the piece will evolve with new faces. Perhaps your own readers could submit some names? The final piece will show them all together.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

IB: Well, if you don’t mind, I may mention the best advice I’ve ever given as a friend has just thanked me for it, and it is also possibly the best advice of what I give myself. I’m sure the people reading this are the ones doing something for themselves, so this is for them: When you have your own business, your own art, when you’re doing something yourself, no one is going to care about it more than you do. Especially not your friends or family. Don’t judge your successes or milestones by their reaction. It probably won’t come. They may never understand it and why it’s important to you or what it means. People don’t support the people they know but the celebrities they don’t know. Don’t hold it against them.

The best reactions to your work will be from people you don’t know. Don’t do things to satisfy your friendship group, look beyond, it’s a big world. The quicker you can do this, the better.

I got to the point where the things I was most proud of, or special to me, I wouldn’t share. It felt it tainted by it as I was wrong to think about sharing it thinking of my friends. I may get some kickback on this, but along with don’t make your art with social media in mind, this is something I wish I knew earlier. But I was happy that this piece of advice had helped my friend, an author who just launched his first book.

With this in mind, I would say help your friends who are in creative fields. My biggest advances have come because of another artist or someone recommending me. It can be a hard and lonely career and you should think what goes around, comes around. It may not be the same person who helps you that you help, but help other artists, recommend them if its right. I’ve seen so many artists stay insular, not help others, and let me tell you… they are all in the same position they were. Be nice!

Check out Ian Berry's work on his website / Instagram


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