This 'Secret Garden' Is Made Entirely From Denim

Artist Ian Berry installs the 'Secret Garden' in the Children's Museum of the Arts in NYC. (Photo: Lucinda Grange/Ian Berry)

Where you see a pile of old denim on your closet floor, artist Ian Berry sees creative potential. Berry has worked exclusively in denim for the last decade, beginning with a portrait series (that includes Debby Harry and Giorgio Armani) in which shades of blue jean blue are used like paint to create images with all the depth and feeling you'd get from paint. Berry has also used various shades of scrap denim to depict quotidian spaces like laundromats, diners, record stores and city streets.

Berry's first installation piece is the "Secret Garden" at the Children's Museum of the Arts in New York City. The museum, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, is highly interactive: It includes a central gallery space, and several art workshop rooms for younger and older kids where they can work on their own creations with on-staff teaching artists. Berry's garden — made entirely out of denim — is located in the Museum's Bridge Space, where rotating exhibits are located, and kids can enjoy the garden on special tours and classes that focus around materials and creating in 3-D.

Check out the Facebook Live video below to get a feel for the "Secret Garden." Artist Ian Berry shared a bit about his creative process and more below:

MNN: You call denim 'your medium for seeing the world' — it's like your special paint: Why denim and not other fabrics? What's so attractive about denim to you as an artist?

Ian Berry: I could write a book on this part. As denim is my "medium for seeing the world," I mean a few things; one is the basic, I can be around and traveling and look at things and imagine how I would do it in denim. Be talking to someone and start constructing their face in denim.

But mainly I mean that as it's the material of our time — be it the most worn, democratic, universal material — it also is a perfect material to represent contemporary life.

The attractiveness for me is that it presents many dualities, the good and the bad. The good being mentioned, the bad from environmental impact, history of child labour, share cropping and of course the "because everyone wears it, it makes it boring." The counter to that is that once someone wears denim, it becomes unique to them.

What denim has for me that other fabrics don't, is those washes, the fades that I merge together to make more of a painterly tone.

Ian Berry's "Secret Garden" installed in the Bridge Space at the Children's Museum of the Arts.
Ian Berry's "Secret Garden" installed in the Bridge Space at the Children's Museum of the Arts. (Photo: Lucinda Grange/Ian Berry)

What was your first piece made from denim and what was it like to create it?

It was on my bedroom floor and it was a piece on Debbie Harry. That weekend I also did James Dean, Brando and Marilyn [Monroe]. It was all to do with their effect on society by wearing denim. I found it amazing how people's views of it changed and it became our go-to item of clothing. It was great to actually be commissioned to do [Harry's] portrait only a few years later and to meet her. I loved the CBGB scene in New York, and if I could go back to any time, it would be then.

Are there challenges working with denim? What are they?

Unlike a painter, I can't mix the paint. I have lots of pairs of denim jeans but I can only work with what I have. I don't manipulate the denim in my work (other than, ironically, in the "Secret Garden" where i washed and lasered some). I will look around the studio for the perfect bit, and while you may think having around 2,000 pairs of jeans is good, the issue is that I keep thinking I will find something better, so I keep on looking and looking.

It has turned out harder to find the perfect piece, the more I have. And if I do, it could be so perfect I think it would be more suited for a different piece, to be used in a better way, so I keep looking.

Tell us how you came up with the idea for the exhibit in the Children's Museum of the Arts in NYC? Why a garden?

Well, I started thinking about the children. I thought how when I was a child I would play outside, in the fresh Yorkshire air in the U.K. and not be on iPads and wrapped in cotton wool. I thought of many New York kids not having gardens. Parenting is also different with everyone been so "busy" normally — meaning the phone is constantly with them.

I wanted to create something that the children could enjoy and think about, with their parent or guardian. Perhaps they could seek out a community garden afterward in the many secret alleys and gaps in New York. Could they look and see the world in denim, and compare it to real life?

I didn't want to make it too complicated for them to understand, and also wanted to make the things simply, so they could recreate them if they wanted. Kids need the encouragement to create and the inspiration.

I also wanted to teach, so that is why I had the cotton plant there. I thought most kids probably would have no idea where jeans come from (the shop?) and possibly not know that this plant is what makes the fabric. [So I explained that in the graphic for] From Plants, to Pants, and back again.

Close on a denim bunny from Ian Berry's Secret Garden.
All kinds of detail, including animals and insects, are a part of the "Secret Garden.". (Photo: Lucinda Grange/Ian Berry)

I'm also aware of the negative impact on the planet a lot of denim can have. I worked with Tonello, an Italian company that makes the laundry machines for the denim industry, and they are pushing the boundaries with sustainability and making machines that use ozone — not water — and using laser machines that again can save on water waste. What better way to represent sustainability than with something as fresh and organic as a blooming garden with plants and flowers and all for the future, the children?

It was meant to be more of a communal garden in New York, but also had influences of children's books like "Alice in Wonderland" and of course the title, "The Secret Garden." That said, it was a working title that stuck and it wasn't really supposed to be anything to do with the book.

How did you manage to capture the magic of a garden with denim?

Hard work and dedication from myself and the many helpers, always thinking of it from a child's point of view, and not my own. Always thinking of myself as a child, and wishing I had a place like this to go to when I was younger.