Being the denim lover and obsessive that I am, I was very excited when I was introduced to the artwork of Ian Berry, also known as Denimu. Ian is an incredible artist using a very different medium to most, he works with denim. All of his creations are made entirely from cut up jeans and they are outstanding!
When I first saw his pictures, I was honestly shocked that they were all bits of denim. They are so good, I honestly expected them to be paint or printed, but they aren’t. Especially his portraits, how Ian manages to find the right shade of denim for each part of the face is amazing. I was lucky enough to catch up with him to find out more about his background, how he uses the fabric and his inspirations for his work. Check out the interview and his work in the gallery below.
DB: So what inspired you to use denim as your medium?
Admittedly at first it was the aesthetic value of the jean that first drew my attention. When I went home after university, my mum had prepared my old room to throw things out or send to the charity shop – as I was going to move to London and she knew that was no longer my room. There were piles of books, DVDs and this big pile of my old worn jeans. I noticed all the different shades and thought, rather than send them to the charity shop I could experiment with them to see if they could recreate the images I had in my head for them.
While working with the jeans though, it took on a lot more meaning and I got really into the history of the fabric – and the duality of meanings and what they represent. It’s such a democratic fabric, available to all, and all kinds of people wear them. They are so universal, but also strongly bring images of America and Americana. I could write an essay here, but this is a denim blog, so it would be preaching to the converted! I am still grasping some of the meaning and would really love to do a body of work that looks more into it. It’s a fabric I am so comfortable wearing, so feel at ease using. Besides – It’s cool!
DB: How long can it take you to create a piece from start to finish?
This is a question I have had asked for a long time now, and still cannot answer. I used to answer in days, but realised that didn’t take in to account my working day could be 14-16 hours, and 7 days a week. I lose track of the hours. It often only included the time sitting down, cutting jeans, not the time consuming process before hand. So it is easier to say a long time.
It could take me half a day just to stick one piece down, finding that right piece I need. I have just redesigned the studio so I can find things better, I have hung the jeans on the wall all around the room, showing things like cat’s whiskers and natural fading so it will take me less time to find them compared to when they are in piles. Working those hours you are looking at 10 days to two weeks though for an average piece so a normal 9 to 5 job it would take the equivalent of a month.
DB: I love art myself, how different is it using denim instead of paint, pencils, pastels, chalks etc?
In some respect, no difference at all, you are still working with light and shade and tones. It is just my medium of choice. Where the difference is, I have to work with what I have. I may have hundreds of pairs of jeans but when you need a shade that you want and you cannot find it – it is not like mixing a colour with paint. Often in these cases I find I do have a shade – but in my own personal wardrobe! The sacrifice, is no sacrifice. The technique is more like collage, but I don’t like to call it that – as it is only one medium. There is also no help book like ‘Mixing with Oils’ so a lot has been trial and error, for example the glues I use… It took me three or four years at the beginning to find a glue I liked (and how to apply it).
DB: Your work is absolutely incredible, especially your portraits. How on earth do you get them so accurate?
The portraits are the hardest. They don’t take as long as the urbanscapes, but there is much more room for error – and sometimes I scrap it and start again. Because of the texture and depth of denim, I have had to learn how to use the fabric. For example pieces overlap each other and if you had a light on them from a certain angle, shadows can be made – this can aid the depth in a urbanscape – but create a ugly line on a persons face. So I try to make this as fine as possible, and in fact if there is a overlap I have the piece further down the work overlaying the piece above it in the piece. This way if the light is from above, there is no shadow. I got caught out recently with this though, as one piece hung in a gallery window and the light was coming from below! It basically comes down to trial and error and hopefully having a good eye.
DB: Since I am obsessed with denim, I would have these paintings all over my house if I had the money! What sort of response do you get from other denim enthusiasts?
I have a great response from denim enthusiasts. The next two pieces I am working on are actually for people who love the fabric, and are well known for it. The reaction is so much better when they see the piece in person. So much is lost in the photography and online – and sometimes people, until they have seen it, assume it is done in photoshop or something. The textures and depth are hard to recreate in reproductions. A piece like ‘The Blue Line’ of the London Underground has so much depth and really works because of the perspective in it.
What I like though, is the response that I get from the ordinary person. Often people come into the gallery and say they are too scared to go in galleries normally or simply they are not that interested ‘but this I like’ and feel it is the jean that has that power. We all wear jeans, right? Well, most of us and I think somewhere inside we all have a connection to it – and importantly – feel comfortable with it. If most people were to choose an item of clothing to be comfortable in, their favourite pair of jeans would probably be it. I am starting to get even more narrative in the work, but believe this ‘comfort’ with this familiar fabric is my hook to connecting to people.
DB: Would you ever start using coloured or printed denim in your work?
I actually do use coloured jeans in my work. In pieces like Michele (portrait) I have the graffiti in the background all done in different colours of jeans and in Welcome to Utica all the shops in the background are done in colour. Strangely, I was able to match all the colours almost exactly. I never dye, or paint but I am toying with options of screen printing over a piece. That kind of thing. But do like to be able to say, everything you see is totally denim.
Whereas it is nice to mix it up with colour sometimes, I feel truer to the concept by staying with blue jeans. Blue jeans are the iconic jean and have a nice tonal value. I have recently moved to a new studio and I have put all the jeans organized (not sure how long that will last) and in one room I have put the black and grey jeans as I realised how many I have and it could be interesting to use the shades of grey building up to the black, like a B+W photo.
DB: Where do you get all of your denim from? Old clothes or do you buy it on the roll?
I get it from all kinds of weird and wonderful places. I do go to a warehouse and buy it in a roll, but this is only for the ‘canvas’ to wrap around a frame to work upon, this is why I can call it ‘denim on denim’ which I am sure you can appreciate. For the actual pieces to go on, I prefer to use used denim as you have more textures and natural fading in them, like the cat’s whiskers. For this I do get a lot of donations, when people come around, two out of three times they will be carrying a bag of jeans they have collected – however here in sweden we have something called ‘loppis’ where I can buy second hand. Then there are vintage stores – and when I really need a shade – I just buy them first hand and worry about the cost later. If I see a piece that would be perfect for something, like a sky, that is difficult, I have been known to spend a fair bit on them.
DB: Could you take us through your thought process of one of your pieces?
I start by getting the photography, for example last year I went on a trip over to the states to get inspiration and to find images of what I may like to do. I took thousands and managed to get in some interesting areas, away from tourist land. For example I spent most my time in Brooklyn and some in New Jersey while in New York and down in New Orleans I ventured out to the 9th ward and other areas (of course I made some good time for Bourbon street!) I wanted to capture everyday life and also derelict areas. I also wanted to find the left overs of Americana, jeans are so connected to it but are also a bit of a symbol for America.
From the photography I play a little in photoshop first, change the crop, perhaps add some more people in, or take some out. Maybe change the composition a little. Add other things. And when I am happy with it I recreate that image on my denim canvas straight from looking at the colour photograph. I used to change it into tones of blue, but find doing it with my own eye is better as you can chose your own tones and what to highlight. Red colours are often hard to translate in to blue, but I get by.
From there I sit on the studio floor surrounded by a denim jeans palette – going from light shades to dark and I will go about matching each piece and translating the shades in my head to what it should be and draw on the back, cut it out, and then stick it on a denim ‘canvas’ hence denim on denim.
When I go around places now, I often start daydreaming while looking at things, imaging what it would look like in denim. This is especially irritating when thinking of a portrait and looking straight at someone.
DB: Thank you so much Ian for this wonderful and in depth interview! I’m sure our readers will love it! You can also check out the rest of Ian’s work at his website, here.