Five Minutes with Artist Sara Berman

Words by
Sara Berman

14th March 2023

Sara Berman is a celebrated artist and former fashion designer who turned away from making clothes a decade ago. Her growing body of work as an artist is gaining recognition for its focus of the female form, in all cases Sara’s own – inspired by self-styled and photographed shoots. It’s in the works’ depiction of fashion, textiles, form and materiality that Sara finds the magic to express her intention as an artist. 

Sara Berman
Sara Berman

I am very much a creature of habit... I have three kids so my studio time is very regimented. The first few hours tend to be procrastination time and I often work on the backgrounds of the works which are an important part of the process but don’t require as much decision making and it’s quite meditative. I move around the studio looking at works in progress and getting a feel for what needs to happen. Once I am ready to paint I tend to get stuck in for the rest of the day. Sometimes I go back in the evening and work into the night. That’s my favourite time to paint. Particularly in the summer when it’s balmy and I have the windows open.

My style signature arises from two very different purposes and personas. What I wear to paint, and the clothes I wear which feature in the paintings… my studio is pretty cold. It’s a large, concrete space and in the winter I wear a big, oversized 80’s ski suit to keep warm. In the summer I have studio jeans which are stiff with paint and have massive holes in the knees. When I am not in the studio I am fairly basic. Jeans, sweater, maybe cowboy boots. And I love a blazer. The clothes I wear for shoots are about telling a story. I use them as a vehicle for expression and communication. This means that they are often slightly flamboyant or have a history which means something to me. It is less about style and more to do with semiotics of dress.

Freefall 2021
'Freefall' by Sara Berman, oil on linen, 200cm x 240cm,

My work deals directly with my experience as a woman and the roles I play within what I perceive as the existing societal constructs... Beneath all my paintings is the trope of the Harlequin as pay by a woman. Tradition has this as a male role with the harlequin as a jester, a joker, a lovable rouge. When played by a woman, she is given the role of the Trickster Whore and has no agency. This is the backdrop against which all my paintings are made. I obliterate the Trickster Whore with paint and allow an ‘acceptable’ version of myself to hide the Trickster Whore. I paint myself because these are my politics. It isn’t about an accurate representation of my face, but what is going on inside and often the masking that happens for me.

I rejected fashion, but after painting a while clothes and textiles crept back into my work in ways I didn’t expect, and now my biggest indulgence is clothes... I am interested in the way clothes hold the body and what they say. I also use them autobiographically. I tend to go for bold shapes and unconventional cuts. Lots of Commedes Garçons, Preen and vintage pieces. I am using clothing as a space for the body to inhabit as well as telling a story. Often it’s a private story or I am using clothing to express my identity as I find myself changing or exploring part of myself. Often, the paintings know what is going on for me before I do.

September by Sara Berman
'September', 2021, oil on linen, 120cm x 120 cm

My process to create new work also begins from a fashion perspective, by styling and creating shoots of myself moving my body and dancing… I usually work with my friend Katarzyna Perlak. We were at Slade together and she is a brilliant artist. I am very comfortable in our dynamic and feel safe with her behind the camera. We will shoot a series of outfits which I will have selected from items bought and worn over the previous few months. They will tell the story of what is going on for me, what I might be thinking about or feeeling- even subconsciously. I go with what feels right. We will discuss our intentions before the shoot. This will always come out of what I am feeling and therefore how I feel in my own body, how I want to move. 

I am always astounded by the question ‘why are you never smiling in your paintings?’... I get that a lot and I find it amazing. I am very happy to educate people but it tends not to be the most comfortable of conversations. I think people are surprised by the violence inherent to the physical making of the paintings and the trope of the Trickster Whore is often a surprise under all the pastel hues. Which is kind of the point!

Sharp by Sara Berman
'Sharp', 2021, by Sar Berman, 200cm x 200cm

Last summer I did a joint show with Luella Bartley, a designer who has also become an artist… Luella is a friend and the show developed out of conversations we had whilst walking. We were pretty confessional and found ourselves circling back to ideas around the body, our sense of self, identity and how we fit into the world right now. This became the backdrop for the work we made for the show.

My next solo show is coming up in Palm Beach.... My gallery Kristin Hjellegerde are opening their new space there and I am very honoured to be the inaugural exhibition. It will be a 3 room show comprising painting, textiles and a video work I made with Anthony Byrne.

Step Change by Sara Berman
'Step Change,' 2021, oil on linen, 200cm x 200cm

If I could be anywhere in the world right now, it would be… following my daughter to South East Asia

My favourite place to eat in London.. Wolesley for steak and chips.

The best exhibition I’ve seen recently is…Mohammed Sami at the Camden Art Center. Blew me away.

The highlight of my career so far has to be... Every time I make a painting that excites me and takes me further.

My guiltiest pleasure is...I am not finding much pleasure in guilt at the moment!!  

The last podcast I downloaded/read is... The Cerebral Women podcast is brilliant. 

The upcoming project I’m most excited about is… Palm Beach will be a lot of fun. I am excited to show the three mediums I work in together and see what that conversation looks like.

Sara Berman is represented by Kristin Hjellegjerde Gallery