Denim had always been important to artist Ian Berry, but over the last few years it’s fair to say that it has become more than just important, it’s become his life. After leaving his job as an art director, Ian was back in his childhood home for an obligatory clear out when he found himself unable to part with a huge pile of old jeans that were destined for the charity shop. Suffice to say, those jeans didn’t end up in that charity shop, and instead Ian – who has since changed his name to Denimu – began creating three dimensional images made solely from his favourite fabric.
What started out as experimentation quickly turned to success, and Ian sold out showed in Sweden and the UK and toured across the US and Europe. And with limitless options and what seems like a never ending supply of denim at his fingertips, Denimu is only just getting started…
How and why did you start using denim as an art material, what’s the story behind it?
It’s quite a simple story. I’m not going go all BS on you. It was just a casual observation when I was working out what to do with all my old possessions at my family home (after uni I was going to move into London). There were book, clothes, DVDs and all kind of things my mum had piled up for me to sort out (including things maybe I didn’t want her to see!) and then there were clothes, specifically a pile of denim. I noticed all the shades and textures contrasting against each other and the trip to Oxfam was cancelled and I started cutting them up and making more of a mess… So at the beginning it was just the aesthetical qualities of the denim that started this all off, but then came so much more…
Where did your love for denim begin?
After making the observation and starting to use denim, other factors came in. I realised my own relationship with denim and I remember a time when I was 14 and had to wear chords at a family party, and when I got there everyone was wearing jeans and even now, the only material I feel really comfortable wearing is denim and so it became the only medium I felt comfortable using.
However I will say, I’m not a denim geek or total enthusiast – yes, maybe next to the normal person but put me in a room of denim geeks, bloggers and experts (and that has happened!), and I would be lost. For me, that is not what denim is about though. It is a material that is accessible to everyone and one that most people feel comfortable wearing, you don’t need to be an expert to do that. It is its universality that is so appealing to many, and I’ll be honest, one that has really opened doors for me as an artist as people seem amazed to see this material they see everyday as art. One key thing that did come through though was its amazing history and dualities, that I do battle with, but the history, and the fact that it’s been there during all the key moments of the last century that is really interesting.
How do you decide on what landscapes to create, are you drawn to specific scenes?
Now I see Denim as more of an urban fabric, from originally seeing it as a rural one. I’m drawn to an urban environment also, I currently live in a semi-rural setting in Sweden and crave big urban life, like New York and my former home in London, where there are so many layers of life and the rich fabric of the city, but I also like to capture the everyday life, often the lonely sole. I’m currently working on a new body of work, so more will be revealed, as I’m really trying to push it in both concept and quality of the craft. I really thought I would go more abstract with the work but I have found myself going more and more photorealistic with the denim, and it has only been time that has allowed this as I discover new ways to use it everyday – which is something that keeps the material interesting for me.
Where do you source your denim? How difficult is it to get enough material?
The denim comes from all over the place. Look at most streets in the world and a large majority of people will be wearing jeans so finding the jeans has not been hard. I get donations from all around the world, as well as deliveries to the doorstep. I scour vintage and second hand stores – as well as raiding my own wardrobe (I have very little jeans left in there!) It has been great to use worn jeans as I think it adds that extra layer of story and history to the piece – as well as that, worn jeans can have interesting wear and tear, fading and shading (yes, I have them washed!).
The problem with the above method is that often I will have only one of a pair of jeans, and when the pieces are larger, I can run out of material, so now it is awesome to have boxes of jeans sent from denim brands and others where there are dozens of the same make. It really adds to the consistency over the piece as it can be hard to match shades.
What are the challenges with working with denim as an art material?
There are many, like the previous question about managing to find the jeans. I suggested that it was easy to get the denim, but I left out that it is bloody hard to find the right shades, especially the ones on the extremes, the lightest shade, and the darkest shade. I have well over a thousand pairs of jeans but only a handful of these kinds so when I do find them it is like gold, and I do ration it and don’t waste anything.
Another problem has been the fraying, so I have developed ways to stop it doing this – as it can be really hard with the smaller pieces. On the other hand, with bigger pieces it is harder to use them, as a leg on a pair of jeans is only so wide (I do like people donating denim when they have lost weight as the jeans are BIG!). Denim shirts can often help with bigger pieces.
My biggest challenge though has often been in showing or explaining to those who have not seen the live art piece that it is layered denim. Even from a distance people think it is a painting or photo, but certainly online and especially on the iPhone people don’t get it is denim. In one way that’s cool, but in another you want them to know too. They think it is flat, where it is really layered and three dimensional. I need to do more to get the photography to reflect this in future.
Talk us through the process when you start creating a piece, how long does it all take?
It takes a awful long time. Matching the shades, taking the original pictures, layering them up piece by piece – often one piece can take a whole day so on that, next question…
Denim never goes out of fashion, why do you think it is such an iconic material?
Denim is timeless, certain trends do come and go but we are in a very extended period of time where denim is very popular. All the magazines have specials, stores have big sections, and many denim brands are popping up and have huge followings. It crosses all sections of the public, and all over the world. We will always wear denim, I did see a time for a while where it was less so, for a few years, but it will always be there. It will just be a period where some little trend will come and then go.
And as for why it is iconic? There are books written on this subject (try Jeans: A Cultural History of an American Icon [James Sullivan] for one) so I don’t know where to start and then stop. They stand for so much, all in one material. From the cowboys to the rebels, film stars to the intellectuals. The worker, to the catwalk. It crosses all kinds of boundaries, but has a youthful feel – even for the older generations when wearing it. I remember when starting out, there were a few comments of ‘it’s art for young people’ yet it was the older generations that were buying the work and perhaps a few people forget that everyone was young once.
How do you see the art progressing, what’s next for you?
I’m working bigger and currently working on a new body of work, called ‘Home’. I don’t want to reveal too much but this collection is going to tour a few museums in a few countries before arriving at my London gallery. Ironically, the tour is also going to take in a few places that will also take in a physical link to the collections name as I explore where home is for me (I have no idea) as well as what home means.