Harriete Estel Berman uses recycled tin cans to construct her artwork ranging from jewelry and teacups to entire lawns of social commentary. Sculptures from the last twenty years include domestic appliances as a commentary on the roles of women in our society and the influence of advertising in our consumer society. Berman’s work has been shown throughout the United States, and in Europe and Africa. Her work is included in the permanent collections of eleven museums including: The Jewish Museum, NY, Jüdisches Museum in Berlin, Germany, the Detroit Institute of Art, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Columbus Museum of Art.
Harriete lives in California where she fills many roles as a mother, daughter, wife, gardener, exercise instructor, and indentured servant to many volunteer activities.
MP: How do you describe yourself as an artist? I am an artist that makes jewelry to larger sculpture (e.g. 9’ x 9’) from recycled materials. The images, colors and patterns reveal deeper social commentary.
MP: How and when did you decide to use recycled materials in your art? I started recycling materials in 1980 after moving to California not far from Stanford University Campus. On campus they had a recycling location for newspapers, glass and cans. I also found a magazine distributor that would take back old magazines.
This started me thinking about everything we throw away and led me to collecting and reusing as much as I could. For example, I’d collect the rubber bands and give them back to the newspaper guy. I am sure he thought I was “nuts.”
In 1988, I started to use recycled materials in my work. At the time it was embarrassing, no one else worked with recycled materials…but I kept going. It was a quiet commitment to myself to reuse materials and to raise people’s awareness about how much we throw away. Since then, the use of recycled materials in my work has become so much more than just a commentary about “thinking green.”
MP: Congratulations on having a pair of earrings featured in the current spring issue of American Style magazine! I have been a fan of your work since the late 90’s when I first saw you in American Craft, The Crafts Report and American Style. But the featured Artist’s Workshop “from trash to treasure” in the Aug/Sept 2003 issue of Mary Engelbreit’s Home Companion was when I fell in love with your tea cups and stash of ready to use tin. At what point did you realize you had something unique and successful?
Going all the way back to 1980 while I was working on “The Family of Appliances You Can Believe In” my work communicated important messages about women’s roles in our society, the impact of advertising and consumerism, and the evolving influences within the art and craft communities. Within a couple of years of graduate school, there were a couple of solo shows at non-profit exhibition spaces. It didn’t matter to me that this work didn’t sell very much. Selling is a very corrupting influence.
When my work changed in 1988, it was really scary to commit to the use of recycled materials because it was so unusual at that time. But the statement that this could make aligned fully with my core belief about how important it was to change our consumption society and raise awareness of our personal contribution to environmental and other social issues.
Now decades later, I’m gratified that trends appear to be shifting toward better awareness, but I don’t think that it is time to relax. I continue to feel a need to keep working very hard every day. There is more to accomplish than ever before.
MP: As an artist, we have many roles, which do you find to be the most rewarding and which the most challenging for you? Each kind of work I make is rewarding for a different reason. I like making the smaller pieces, such as the earrings and pins for Etsy and Object Fetish/Jewelry
to share my work with a broader audience. Making the larger museum quality work such as here is much more of a physical and emotional struggle, but it is important for the long term growth of my work.
Starting March 29 I am posting one APRIL FLOWER BROOCH every day on ASK Harriete in honor of Earth Day. Theses amazing pins are the perfect way to update your wardrobe with color prints and flowers the hottest fashion trend.
MP: What is the number one thing anyone can and should do to take their art to the next level? Work every single day for at least one hour. Every single day, if you miss a day, then you have to pick up the pace and work the next day. Pauses in your work tend to get extended and restarts are paralyzing.
MP: The grass sculpture is one of my favorites. Can you tell our readers the story behind it? About 15 years ago, I made a small bird house for my father as a present. It had a grass roof (made out of recycled tin cans, of course). This grass led to an ingenious solution to attach each blade to a base. but what to do with it? Three years later, my neighbors took out their shrubbery and landscaping to put in a lawn instead. I was shocked! It caused me to consider the huge environmental impact of lawns! The green lawn is only sustained with the use of chemicals, then watered with our drinking water that washes the chemicals into our streams and surface water.
The 9’ x 9’ grass sculpture has 32,000 blades of grass. It looks pretty much like a lawn., but as you get close, the brand names and images of recycled tin cans reinforces the message about how lawns are another symbol of consumption and waste in our consumer society where we think we can buy everything including happiness and a green lawn.
MP: I have found your “Professional Guidelines” and “Ask Harriete” to be very valuable resources as an artist and a creative entrepreneur. Would you share with us when you made the decision to share your knowledge for recurring issues in the art and craft community?
My inspiration and dedication for the Professional Guidelines was provoked by yet another “learning the hard way” experience pursuing the business side of being an artist. As I was “learning” from one such experience, it occurred to me how ridiculous it was that everyone was enduring similar experiences time after time. Why couldn’t I share my experiences with others to help them? This was in 2001 and every year since then, new topics are added to the Professional Guidelines. I also started my blog, ASK Harriete, as another format for sharing art business information.
MP: If you could recommend one way each of us as artists could self –promote, what would it be?
I think the Internet is an amazing opportunity with easy entry, low cost, and great exposure. Every artist should establish their own website and learn how to effectively use social networking, such as Facebook, Flickr and Crafthaus, along with online marketing sites such as Etsy and Object Fetish /Jewelry.
Slideshare is another great way to share your work. It is free to upload your PPT presentation and you can even add MP3 audio. CLICK HERE to view a few of my Slide Share presentations.
MP: When you are not working, how do you spend your time? I usually work every day, every second of the day that I can. Studio work is truly my passion and most enjoyable activity. But there are endless distractions and juggling of priorities. I love having my kids home from college when that occurs. More routinely, I lead six exercise classes a week, repair silver and silverplate for additional income (for over 30 years), take care of the neighborhood park, take care of my garden, write the Professional Guidelines, write ASK Harriete, help plan the Professional Development Seminar and organized “A Smaller Conference Experience” for the SNAG Conference. Occasionally, lectures and my professional development workshop pull me away from home to travel.
I would like to encourage everyone to utilize the Professional Guidelines to learn from the experiences of other artists, exhibition sponsors, gallery owners, and collectors. It is a treasure of reference materials.
I’d also like everyone to read and share ASK HARRIETE with their friends. This more interactive forum discusses a wide range of issues and addresses audience questions with objective perspectives and researched responses.
If you would like to follow Harriete or learn more about her art and all she so graciously shares with the art world here are all of her links. WEBSITE, VIDEOS, BLOG, Etsy, Twitter, Objectfetish, Crafthaus, flickr, APRIL FLOWER BROOCHES on Flickr,
Facebook, LinkedIn, youtube