Walking into Alice Berry’s studio, you immediately notice the divide in the space. One side is chaotic, bright, and full of creative possibilities draped over mannequins. Pieces of multi-colored fabric are strewn across the wooden tables, ideas of scarves and clothes in the making but abandoned for the moment. A wall of neatly organized, rolled fabric containing every hue in the color spectrum, fills the entire right side of the room. Two sewing machines occupy the back right corner of her studio, frozen in the moment, waiting to pick up where they left off.
"A lot of times, what I end up doing is encouraging people to understand and accept that they have an artistic identity."
The other side is peaceful nook to the left of the entrance. Two comfy chairs punctuate the space directly in front of the heater, providing its occupants with the warmth during a chilly afternoon. A blank wall stands as the backdrop for Berry’s counseling sessions, a contrast to the silk screens that decorate her designing workspace. This is where Berry counsels her artists.
Berry is an independent clothing designer working in Chicago. Much of her designs are inspired Abstract Expressionist painters such as Josef Albers Mark Rothko. In the fall of 2011, Berry sought a change and entered Roosevelt University to pursue a Master's in Clinical Psychology. She completed her degree in August 2014, became a Licensed Professional counselor in March 2015, and has since begun a private practice specializing in counseling artists from her studio. Berry sat down to discuss her designing career, how she counsels artists, and the nature of her practice. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You work as an independent clothing designer, as well as an artistic counselor, but as a clothing designer, what is your creation process like?
It has changed over the years. I’ve started out more as a traditional clothing designer in that . . . well, when I first started, I was commissioned to do a line where I had to do 20 pieces of various kinds of garments by the request of a store. But over the years, my process changed according to how much freedom I had in my creation with what I could sell. I’ve been fortunate to be able to sell a lot of what I make and make a living from it.
There was a really nice time for about five years or so when I was really creative . . . I was writing poetry and having that poetry made into silk screens, which I would put onto garments and leather. A lot of it has to do with what I’m feeling inspired with at any given time. The inspiration behind the scarf line that I do comes from the natural world; we name things after shells, water, sky, and various natural phenomena. The theory of the scarf line is based on the Color Theory of Josef Albers, as well as the abstract expressionist painters. I will often go back to the fine arts for inspiration. I have a series of scarves based on Klimt paintings and certain color waves he was getting into, such as iridescence.
You say you’re inspired by the natural world. Would you say that living in Chicago makes it difficult to garner that inspiration?
It’s where you find it. Chicago has a lot of green space. It’s not just skyscrapers, but skyscrapers are beautiful, too. When I was training, I had to get to the southwest side early in the morning, and there were moments when the sunlight would hit the skyscrapers, and it was the most gorgeous glowing, golden light that only lasted a few minutes because of the angle of the sun. It’s where you find it.
What first drew you to designing?
I had been a designer since I could remember. I fell in love with fabric at a young age. The color field theory came about in the late 80s/early 90s, and that was my training. I learned to think about color and took it to a new level by incorporating it into my work.
What is Color Theory? Can you talk more about that?
Josef Albers figured out a way to systematize how colors go together and what they do in the presence of each other. His art was all about the relationship between colors. He would say that there is no such thing as a color in a finite sense, but it only exists in relation to whatever it’s next to. It’s all about how colors relate to each other, and that is what my work is about.
In 2008 I did a performance that was a combination fashion show and performance where I gave a spoken word piece about the color red, and how no one can decide what color red was. There was an organization that had asked me to make a red dress, and I did, and they sent it back saying it wasn’t red. Then the next year, they said that this was the color red we want, and I had it on my wall. A friend of mine who is a painter came by and said, “Oh, that’s not red. That’s orange.” Perception is all.
What are you currently working on?
Well, I had my scarf line from 1999 to 2010, and when I went back to school for my Masters, I put the business on hiatus. Last year when I finished my training, I was trying to decide what to do . . . I had an offer to work with a store, but that didn’t work out, but what it did do was cause me to start working again. I’ve been selling independently through the studio; everything I do is one of a kind or small series. Lately, I have been working with a silk screen design, a couple textile designs that I came up with; I’ve been doing shawls, scarves, t-shirts, and dresses with this screen design.
How did you go from designing to pursuing a Masters in Clinical Psychology?
I needed a change. I needed a real break. I spent about six months trying to figure out what I was going to do and came to the realization that I might be a good counselor. When I was investigating counseling, I ended up having a conversation the head of the psychology department at Roosevelt who invited me to apply there, so I did. I was looking for a break, and I didn’t want to do anything that had to do with fashion.
"I am not an art therapist; I am a therapist who specializes in working with artists."
When I was applying and looking at schools, I heard a lot of, “Oh, well you wanna go into art therapy!” and I said no, that I didn’t want to have anything to do with the visual. I am not an art therapist; I am a therapist who specializes in working with artists. I talk to them about basic therapeutic issues and how their sense of self, as an artist, affects the rest of their life. I originally thought I would be working with a mind/body clientele of yoga practitioners because that was what I was originally interested in.
What would you tell an artist who feels overwhelmed or blocked?
It depends on what’s causing them to feel that way, but I would be able to listen to them with a greater understanding of how there being an artist affects the rest of their world. When I was in training, I had three artists who I saw over a course of a year. Talking to them made me realize that there was stuff I was talking to them about that a non-artist wouldn’t understand. One day I was having a session with a visual artist, and he was talking about being blocked and how the inability to make art challenged his sense of identity and self because if he’s an artist and he’s not making art, then what is he? That’s how I felt at the time, and since I was in training, I told my supervisor I was feeling affected. My supervisor said, “Yeah, so? Why are you having this response?” It was weird to me that he didn’t understand why I was so affected, and I realized it was because he didn’t understand how an artistic identity can affect the way you perceive the world. That was when I realized that maybe I should be working with artists because I understand how important that is.
How do you find an artistic identity usually affects an artist’s relationships?
Often, when people are in a relationship, they like to think that the person they’re in love with will put them above everyone else or at least in the top five. An artist will quite often be in love with someone, but if they’re in an inspired moment or working or have a deadline then the relationship may become secondary. Some people handle that better than others, both the artist and the other person in the relationship. Artists tend to see the world differently; they have different perceptions of society and media; there’s a little bit of being able to see behind the curtain.
A lot of it also depends on what issues the artist might be having with their identity, and a lot of times, what I end up doing is encouraging people to understand and accept that they have an artistic identity and that could be affecting things rather than how they were raised or who they were raised by. Some of the research and study I’ve been doing the past few months has shown me that just as people have a racial and ethnic identity, there is a temperamental personality that has to do with the artistic, as well.
How do you see the world differently as an artist?
I’ve seen it differently since I’ve had this training in psychology. I see underlying causation and correlation between a lot of things that I would not have. There’s a saying in the research world: correlation does not denote causation. Just because one thing occurs with another, doesn’t mean that the one thing caused the other.
I understand you were at EXPO this year as an artistic counselor. Can you talk a little bit about that?
"Artists tend to see the world differently."
When I was still in training, I ran into Tricia Van Eck at a party, and I told her what I was doing, and she asked me to council couples at a show she curated called Why Marriage? It was really successful; people were lined up to see me and sit in public in a hallway and talk about their lives. That piece developed to the point of when Tricia was doing her installation at EXPO, she asked me to come and [counsel] at EXPO. Sure enough, it was a real success. I saw 80 people in the course of three days. We did 10-15 minute sessions and people went right into their lives. There was a real desire to have someone who they perceived as an artist and a trained therapist. I started my private practice in March, and during that time, I was also figuring out whether or not I was going to make clothes again, if I’d do it through a store, or if I was going to be independent. So in March, I started my practice and also had my first independent show, and the response to the show was, okay, if I do this a few times a year, I don’t need to get a job, and it also meant I was able to develop my practice.
Do you have any advice for artists who are struggling with their art or feeling like it is not a viable and sustainable career?
There are a lot of ways to skin a cat. There are a lot of ways to get the ability to practice art and make a living. Those two things can be mutually exclusive; they can be bound up together; they can be pieces of each. I’d also say that they are not alone. There are a lot of people out there trying to answer the same question, and people have been asking these questions for years. What’s new is the entry of technology in how people make a living, which causes different kinds of questions to be asked. So different ways to skin that cat have presented themselves.
I would also say that it’s not a bad thing to try and get some help. Mental health care is sometimes difficult to come by, but if they need to talk to someone, they should do so rather than later, particularly if they’re in a spiraling, ruminating state. If people are reading this and find themselves in a state where they feel like it might help them to talk to a counselor, they can go to my website
. I’m not accepting insurance, but I have a sliding scale.
There’s a lot of stigma these days around mental health. What would you say to someone who is embarrassed to seek help?
Don’t believe it. There is a lot of cultural, religious, and social stigma. I had a client who was in a self-defeating cycle of talking badly to herself and at one point she said, “Yeah, and you even have to pay somebody to talk to you because nobody wants to talk to you.” I said that I could nip that one in the bud. I am not your friend. I am a clinician whose job it is to help you change your thought patterns. The way you can change those patterns is to rethink and reframe how you perceive yourself, the world, and your relationships. I am trained to help you do that and figure out what perceptions may or may not be helpful to you. Changing your thought patterns is not something easy to do on your own; it needs someone who is able to be on the outside and help you figure it out. The definition of therapy is effecting change in your life.
Is there anything I didn’t ask you’d like to share?
I see all different kinds of artists, not just visual. I see performers, gallerists, actors, photographers, and filmmakers. My definition of artist is very broad. Even people who aren’t necessarily in a creative profession but think of themselves as creative find themselves thinking differently than other people might be well-served to see me.
Alice Berry is currently accepting new clients, and more information about her and her practice can be found on her website
. Berry will also be showcasing her designs in a holiday show at Zia Gallery
on November 21 from 5 - 7 p.m.