The hardest thing about going back to school to get my MFA was not giving up the respected fashion brand I had founded and built (I was done there). It was not the struggle to balance a full-on family life against a challenging full-time program (I never had a chance). It was not even the relentless pursuit of artistic development that frustrated and confounded me more often than not (a necessarily ongoing state of affairs).
Actually, the biggest stumbling block to developing as a fine artist at art school was the total lack of boundaries. This simple given of any good art school education was, for me, creatively paralyzing.
This was a surprising problem. My acknowledged skill set prior to deciding to focus on painting was that of a design entrepreneur. This statement is not a popular one for artists. There is this widely held fantasy of the artist as some sort of lofty, unboundaried individual for whom strategy is impossible. I believe this to be a misconception, but it does go some way to explaining why the untrammelled freedoms of art school came as such a surprising handicap to me. Successful entrepreneurs do well because they tend to disregard boundaries and use this freedom to innovate. I realize that this in itself is a highly creative act, but within the necessary confines of the commercial world it is not seen so much as creativity but as ‘good business’ when it works. When it doesn’t work, it is simply failure.
Being in control of my own fashion design business, I was entirely free to identify and respond to those boundaries that I felt were counterproductive and create new strategies for my business. My concerns were both product- and business-led. Ultimately I was operating within a commercial system and became frustrated with its inherent constructs. To this end, one of the key factors in deciding to take my creativity in the particular direction of fine art was the cleanness of it, the lack of a predetermined, outward-facing critical path within the process. So again, it seems amazing that when offered an open field I seized up tighter than a bad clam.
I realize that there are big differences between working as a designer and a fine artist, but I suppose a part of me had romantically assumed that without the constraints of a business built around commerce, I would be free to make wonderful work. However, without anything to push against, I found I didn’t have any way of going deeper into the work and developing it. This was as frustrating as a game with no rules. And if we are talking games, then I must confess my fear of failure. In design, failure is fatal. In business, failure is an expensive learning experience at best, fatal at worst. But in the hands of an artist, it is crucially inevitable. Some work fails less than other work in the eyes of the artist, but ultimately it is the failure that drives the work forward; but it is the boundaries that identify the failures. Over time, as an artist develops, the boundaries may alter, and work which failed by certain criteria may appear to be a success under others. Either way the boundaries must exist. I am sure you can now see where my problems lay. Between my lack of boundaries and fear of failure I was struggling.
My “Eureka” moment was when I realized that I could put my business skills as an entrepreneur to work in making art. All I needed to do was understand what I wanted the rules to be and where I needed the boundaries to lay. I have always loved the truism that good design should feel easy and this rang true for me in painting also. All I needed to do was understand very simply what mattered to me in a work and how much. These simple boundaries freed me to engage with the work and employ strategies for making it. From the rules of play within the materiality of painting to the formal and conceptual concerns of the work, these boundaries provided a structure, an inward-looking critical path open to subversion and of course failure. Suddenly I was a renegade again, but this time the boundaries were defined by my own personal exploration and my failures were constructive.
As an entrepreneur, it was my creativity that allowed me to see existing boundaries from other positions from which to innovate. As a fine artist, the single most important factor in developing my practice has been this same ability to identify boundaries and strategize within the work. The important difference is that as a design entrepreneur, the strategies were outward facing and generally a reaction to customer or market forces. As a fine artist the strategies are a reaction to the work itself. For me, my practice is at its most engaging when I am able to respond to what the work is doing and push the boundaries to make work that quite simply does what I want it to do.
Sara Berman is a practicing fine artist with an MFA from Slade UCL. Prior to obtaining her masters she did a BA in fashion design at Central St. Martins and founded her eponymous women’s clothing line. The Sara Berman brand grew to sell in over 50 stores globally and online, winning numerous awards and industry accolades. Sara has worked extensively in Japan as a design consultant and also as a Creative Director and Creative Business consultant in the UK. Currently living and working as a visual artist in London.