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'Isolation in Sweden put my art on world stage'

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12:37 CEST+02:00
Yorkshireman and denim artist Ian Berry locked himself in a studio for three years in the small Swedish town Landskrona. The isolation took little toll, instead his career took a big leap – so big it outran him.

Sometimes Ian Berry forgets he lives in Sweden.

The artist, who was born in Huddersfield, UK, and became famous with making art out of blue jeans, most of the time locks himself up in his studio in Landskrona and works the whole day into the night.

"When I get out and talk to someone, I am like: 'Oh yeah, right, they are talking Swedish.'"

Despite the Swedish summer his skin is still white and despite having lived in Sweden for three years his language skills have not improve significantly.

"I work till I am exhausted, which is around one o' clock in the morning, then I go to bed and sleep until 7 or 8am. Then I go straight back to my studio. If I haven’t slept there."

In his art, Berry cuts pieces of denim into shapes and glues them together. This way he creates pictures of, for example, the London Underground or Piccadilly Circus, or interiors ranging from London pubs to American Diners. The magazine "Art Business News" placed him recently in its "Top 30 artists under 30" list.

In his studio, he stores thousands of different pairs of jeans, so he may always find the right shade for his new piece of art. Sometimes it takes him up to half a day to find the fitting piece.

The 29-year-old artist was inspired when he saw a pair of his old jeans on a pile of cast offs ready for the charity shop. "I was transfixed by the ripped, faded texture of the fabric," he writes on his homepage. "How the different blues contrasted against each other with the varying shades."

He doesn’t like to bang on about the conceptual nature of his art, but he does have his own meanings in his works, he says, but leaves further interpretation to the viewer: "I like when people come to me and say: 'I am not really into art but I like what you are doing'."

GALLERY: Scenes made out of jeans

During the recession in 2009, he was made redundant as an art director at a company in Sydney and left for Sweden to visit his backpacker girlfriend. But – "this changed my life drastically" - he stayed.

He focused only on his artwork full-time – which basically meant he was working on all cylinders again. Only this time, he did not do it for the money but was actually using up his savings while building up a new collection. The young couple even moved from Lund to Landskrona - a town of 30,000 - since the rent is cheaper there as they were not sure how well his art career would go.

At first, Berry was inspired by his new surroundings and a country that seems to love jeans. "It is amazing that such a small country has so many jeans brands," he says. "And they are a lot cheaper here than in London - one of the only things, that is."

In 2011, he set up an exhibition with Swedish scenes in southern Sweden, but, he says, "it didn't feel natural for me". He prefers the American brands which he associates with romantic notions of big movies. "It has a more international feeling but also a personal connection for me," says the artist, who held several exhibitions in the US, Portugal and London and is preparing for one at London's Catto Gallery in November this year.

At a recent exhibition in Miami, Berry sold his pieces for $7,200 a pop.

"I had 16 flights this year from Copenhagen, all work-related," says Berry. "My artwork has gone faster than I have. I did not have one day of vacation this year in all that travel."

When he does have the time, Berry visits the Swedish flea markets - loppis and shops there for used jeans. Sometimes people donate old clothes. "I even got a pair from the Nobel family."

Blue jeans are big in the Swedish second-hand market, he says. "It's just because so many people wear them here."

Even though he could not really immerse himself in the country he lives in right now, he found some things he likes about it: that Swedes love whisky and the summer, for example. "And I do like pickled herring." Berry has also swapped English tea for Swedish coffee.

On the other hand, there is a downside as well.

"I miss being around a creative crowd," he says, "but the good thing is, I don’t get distracted here."

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