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Local Lisa M. Berman celebrates 22nd anniversary of her global brand Sculpture to Wear

By DIANNE RUSSELL

A Laguna resident since 1972, Lisa M. Berman began her career at age 17selling her jewelry at the Laguna Beach Craft Guild on the Cobblestones at Main Beach. That was the first step in a journey that eventually led her to a fashion degree and propelled her into an internationally recognized trailblazer in the world of jewelry – as the “Ambassador of Wearable Art.”

This month, Berman celebrates the 22nd anniversary of her global brand Sculpture to Wear. Carrying on the legacy of Joan Sonnabend, Berman acquired the name Sculpture to Wear in 1998. With her own unique presentation, she built her iconic brand and introduced a new genre of art. 

Launch of Sculpture to Wear

In 1999, her inaugural exhibition Structural Integrity - Jewelry’s Foundation in Bergamot Station Art Center in Santa Monica launched the Sculpture to Wear gallery and the careers of dozens of today’s important designers. 

However, defining her combination of art, fashion, and jewelry proved to be a challenge.

“My husband was a fine arts dealer, but I wanted to do something different,” 

Berman says. “When I opened the gallery, I spent two years giving classes. My office was a broom closet. People were asking how could this be jewelry, there are no jewels or diamonds. I had to learn how to explain it.”

Local Lisa closeup

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Photo by Bonnie Schiffman

Lisa M. Berman, “Business Attire” Necklace by 2Roses, Hinged bracelet by Statements Accessories and Orbit earrings by Gina Pankowski

Sculpture to Wear, similar to the Algonquin in NYC, was the gathering place to find the most interesting and cutting-edge works – wearable art by international artists. The gallery was instrumental in initiating the studio jewelry movement in the United States. It offered an eclectic array of art, jewelry, and unique objects to discerning collectors, media producers, and institutions, which have been featured in film, television, and publications. It has been published in the NY Times, Vogue, W, Elle, and People magazines and has been featured at the Grammy’s, Academy Awards, and Emmy’s.

Wearable art movement

The global wearable art movement emerged at the close of the 1960s, flowered in the 1970s, and continued in the early 2000s. 

Berman says, “Wearable art, for all intents and purposes, was first the ‘step-child’ of the art world, as photography was 60 years ago, and was passed over without a glance. Then designers started looking at them, copying and incorporating them into fashion.” 

Her designs are so identifiable that she says, “It’s funny, I could be traveling in Europe wearing my jewelry and people would say, ‘Hey, you’re that jewelry lady.’”

Connecting with an idol 

Self-taught, Robert Lee Morris was discovered in 1971 by New York gallery owner Joan Sonnabend and first exhibited his work at her art jewelry outpost in the Plaza Hotel called Sculpture to Wear. 

Berman says, “I grew up admiring his work. I saw it when I was 18 years old in New York. He started making pieces and brought me representations of his work which were different and new. In 2005, we did a 35-year retrospective. About a year ago, we invigorated our friendship, and we brought him out to the West Coast to represent his archival collection.” 

Local Lisa collar

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Photo by Daniel Oropeza

Actress Neva Cole wearing collar that appeared in the Ruth Bader Ginsberg exhibition “Feel the Frill” 

Berman admits that the artistic process has changed.

“Wearable jewelry forms a legacy to enjoy now but does it translate to the future? It’s usually made of recycled material that disintegrates. Depending on how pieces are taken care of, they could last five years in a museum or 50 years.

“Now jewelry is made from free diamonds, with no chemicals and artists use technology in the creative process and make designs on 3D printers.”

The love of jewelry

In an interview with Jewelry Journey, Berman said, “I had always loved jewelry and played in, of course, my grandmother’s, my great-grandmother’s, and my mother’s jewelry boxes, and was constantly either going to vintage stores or garage sales and putting things together and making unexpected and aesthetic choices.”

Berman, who graduated from Laguna Beach High School as Lisa Babik, holds degrees in Plastics Manufacturing Technology from California State University Long Beach, Product & Jewelry Design from Otis College of Art & Design, and Merchandising and Marketing from Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM). 

She has served on the Board of Governors for Otis College of Art & Design; as Public Relations Chair for the Textile and Costume Council at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA); and on the Museum Collection Board at FIDM. She volunteers for Free Arts for Abused Children, STEAM projects, and Art & Fashion Councils.

Local Lisa Godiva

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Photo by Daniel Oropeza

Lux Maximus Sculpture: by Daniel Oropeza. Neva Cole as Godiva. “Lady Godiva, Woman of Dissent” was conceptualized, written, and styled by Lisa M. Berman.

 How Berman Arts Agency was born

In 2008-2009, Berman put the Sculpture to Wear gallery (which she had moved to Montana Ave in L.A.) on hold due to the responsibility of caring for her infant daughter (who is now a seventh-grader at Thurston) and her terminally ill husband. 

Three years ago, she founded Berman Arts Agency, which offers artist representation, career management, corporate acquisition, sponsorship advisement, museum placement, exhibition curation, and education services on the disciplines of fine art, jewelry, design, and fashion.

It began with renown photographer Bonnie Schiffman and sculptor Daniel Oropeza. “Bonnie wanted to invigorate her career and David and I just secured a small museum show for her at the National Comedy Center museum in upstate New York. I’m also working with Daniel Oropeza, who won Art Prize 2017. He just secured a location for his collection at an outdoor sculpture garden on the West Coast, which will be unveiled later on this summer.”

Matching the collector to the collection

The addition of technology and the collaboration of the previously established mediums combined allowed art jewelry to make a small, yet indelible impact in the global artworld. The important by-product of this transition is the verifiable and collectable markets of this genre, especially into fine art museums and notable cultural institutions.

Berman curates exhibitions and places collections into museums, as well as offering an eclectic array of art, jewelry, and unique objects via her gallery installations to discerning collectors, media, and art institutions, which have been featured in multiple films, television, and publications. 

“Every time a piece is sold – collected – the price goes up,” says Berman.

She emphasizes the importance of matching the collector with the collection. 

“Only a small percentage of it is my work, the rest is other artists. I worked with a private collector who just placed three pieces of studio jewelry into LACMA last year, and I’m happy to say that this particular collector acquired them from my own personal collection.”

Local Lisa ice

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Photo by Daniel Oropeza

“Ice Collar” by Greg Orloff appeared in Ruth Bader Ginsberg exhibition “Feel the Frill.” He won the Wearable Art Competition in Palos Verdes Art Center Global competition with a different piece.

Berman has placed jewelry, paintings, and photographs in museum collections of the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian, LACMA, the GETTY, MAAD, etc. Her most recent exhibition, titled Feel the Frill, honored the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and received contributions of collars from around the world. The first piece purchased was from the one of the most prominent donors, collectors, and museum makers on the West Coast.

Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, the sale from 2020 of Robert Lee Morris’s private archival collection sold by Sculpture to Wear was the single largest sale of his career. Berman says, “It was not a show at all it was in fact a very private transaction between the collector and myself, simply emailing the images back and forth. 

“The collector had listened to my podcast on Jewelry Journey. She had no prior knowledge of RLM. She didn’t touch or see the pieces before she made her decision and committed to acquire the collection.”

Local Lisa pennies

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Photo by Daniel Oropeza

Lux Maximus Sculpture: by Daniel Oropeza. Actress Neva Cole wears Emancipation Collar by 2Roses for the “Feel the Frill” exhibition hosted by Sculpture to Wear.

Pandemic and future

“I take the new genre of work very seriously during the pandemic. I regard it with a sense of responsibility and a new intimacy. Right now I’m looking at my collection – it’s juicy and interesting.

“It’s important to be a conduit for art for the community and ambassadors for artists, and that we do it with gusto and a generosity of spirit during these trying times. As I progress as a collector, my eye becomes more sophisticated as I  access global works. What will I keep, what will I let go?” 

Future of wearable art

“The question now is how to attract new generations of collectors. I don’t wear my pieces as often. I keep them on the wall. A lot of the younger generation is not into collecting. They wear jeans and T-shirts and want experiences.”

Do collectors have favorites? It takes a while for Berman to answer.

“It’s a necklace made in 1999 or 2000 from pieces of the pages of the financial section from the New York Times which are formed into balls with gold posts stuck through the center and a pearl at the end of each post.

“My work is a labor of conviction. It’s an honor to be a driving force – it keeps my life very interesting.”

For more about Lisa M. Berman and Sculpture to Wear, go to www.sculpturetowear.com.

 

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