Sara Berks is an interdisciplinary artist, designer and small business owner whose practice couples experiments in tapestry weaving with functional textile design. Sharp geometric shapes and repetitive patterns are softened by cozy natural cotton fibers, merino wool, vintage silks, and soft alpaca yarns. She began weaving one-of-a-kind art objects in 2013 and shortly after launched MINNA, a home textile brand collaborating with weavers in Mexico and Guatemala to create limited edition blankets, rugs, and pillows in Sara’s unique designs.
Picnic: The first and last time we had a studio visit was in 2012, in your old studio a few blocks away. Your work has really evolved into a completely new practice and small business. I’d like to start by talking about what you’re working on now and the pieces you have hanging up.
Sara: I was actually nervous for this question because I’m not really working on anything that is art based, right now it’s all for MINNA. We are surrounded by a lot of weavings, blankets, rugs and pillows.
And MINNA is your main project now? Do you see that and your art practice as separate?
Yeah I do, I’ve been focussing on MINNA, while it’s a creative project that I’m doing – it’s also a business. It’s funny, I started MINNA as a weaving practice, then I turned it into a textile business to keep weaving separate. I felt it was all getting convoluted and I wasn’t making anything for myself – I was only making things for other people constantly. So, yeah, I try to keep that separate. I keep all of that separate from graphic design, and completely separate from artwork, like drawing, which I’m not doing at all right now. I guess there are four separate things happening at once.
When we first met a few years ago you were primarily working on hand-sewn limited edition books and compulsive line drawings with repetitive text.
Which turned into compulsive weaving.
It seems like a natural transition for you to go that direction, but you hadn’t woven before?
No, I hadn’t done any weaving before. In term of textiles, I had done knitting and tiny embroidery things, and then I just had it in me suddenly that I wanted to start weaving and I did, and just kept going, and it turned into this.
Did you teach yourself?
Yeah, I taught myself. I broke a little frame apart and just wrapped warp around it and watched a lot of youtube videos and looked at books on weaving. It’s really intuitive, people think it’s such a complicated thing, on a floor loom it’s super complicated, but on a frame it’s really just – in and out and in and out, so it was easy to figure it out. It’s funny because I’m actually teaching a class tonight and whenever I teach I never know how to start because I just taught myself, and nothing I say is actually based on teachings of other people. I’ve learned things now about proper weaving and how to warp a floor loom and actual tapestry techniques but I always say to my students ‘If you think it works, just do it.’
I would think that would make you a more relatable teacher, it’s less intimidating, and motivating to know that anyone can learn.
Yeah, they’re always like ‘Is this right?’ and I ask them ‘Do you think it feels right?’ I’m not a hippie, but if it feels right then it’s right.
Going from working on flat 2-d works to experimenting with textiles and different textures, did you hit any hurdles in the learning process?
Yeah, at first, it was a learning curve, figuring out how to use the medium in a drawing kind of way. Weaving traditionally is back & forth, back & forth. I wanted to do curves, patterns and shapes that take a really long time to make in a weaving, but drawing them is just drawing a line. A diagonal line in weaving you have to start at the bottom and then get to the top, you’re not just moving a pen across a page. That was hard at first, to figure out how I wanted to make it work.
Do you sketch out your pieces before hand or let them build up as you are working?
Sometimes I do, but most of the time I just have it in my head. I’ll plan a color palette more than I’ll plan the pattern of it. But, usually when I sketch it ends up being completely different, like that piece with the four lines, that I sketched, that was very planned [above]. But then this one, I knew I wanted to make something gridded and geometric. I didn’t plan each square, each one just happened [below].
I love your palette, the muted- earthen tones, are you using natural dyes?
I’m actually not, some of the yarns are, but it’s mostly a mix. The new rugs that I’m doing are all naturally dyed.
Your textile practice initially started by creating woven wall hangings, how did you come to expand your line to include collaborations with other artisans?
I wanted to start making functional textiles and I knew that I wanted to make things as ethically as possible- and not go to a factory and not to just send files into the distance and get back things from far off places. I did a lot of research and I ended up taking a trip to Mexico, that launched everything. I was going there to take a workshop; I was going to learn about natural dyes, rug weaving and how they do it. Partially for my own interest, and partially to understand how they actually produce it, to understand their process so I could design with that in mind. When I was there I met this older woman who introduced me to a lot of other families that I luckily became close with. They have been producing everything so far. One family works on the blankets, another family works on the rugs. In that whole experience I started doing more research on Central America and textiles. I also went to Guatemala and I work with two non-profits there and they connect me directly to weavers. It was a natural progression, but it was also a very sudden progression into textile production.
A few of your wall hangings on your website say they are inspired by artists such as Helen Frankenthaler & Joseph Albers. Are there other artists or designers you look to for inspiration?
Yeah, Sheila Hicks is the weaving hero. Her work is phenomenal for weavers anywhere and in general. I feel sometimes that I’m designing in a little bit of a vacuum, I work alone a lot, I’ve just been trying to look at historical things lately.
But also, just as a byproduct of who is producing your work – you must be looking at Mexican and Guatemalan works as well?
Yeah, which is also part of what I’m trying to do with the weavers in Mexico and Guatemala is not design things that are so drastically outside of the way they weave already. I didn’t want to make something that was impossible for them to create. With the rugs they work in really geometric simple shapes, I wanted to find ways to make that feel contemporary. The pillows are woven in Guatemala on back-strap looms, they wear them across their back and weave either sitting or standing. The width of the pillow is determined by the width of the hips, it can only be slightly wider.
So the size changes depending on who is weaving it?
Yeah, sometimes things aren’t always the right size or the right color.
Do you have any trips planned down there?
Yeah, I’m going to Mexico at the end of December, I’m going to visit with everyone that I work with. I’m excited, I’ve started them all off on new projects now. I’ll be getting there to oversee and check, I’ll already know that production will be ready for the show New York Now that will be a month later.
I am always drawn to functional art, a few of the artists I’ve had picnics with we talk about this- Adams with his ceramics, Jason Kachadourian who in addition to his art practice also makes furniture. What drives you to make something functional?
I’ve always had this separation in my head, that there is design, and then there is art. There is a weird in between. I like creating things that are functional and when I’m not I sometimes feel like I’m just doing something selfishly; when I’m creating things that are only functional, I’m not doing anything for myself. It’s a weird balance of creating two types of work. Also, I think partially why I decided to do that was a work-life decision, I didn’t want to be a graphic designer anymore. I still don’t, but I do because I have to. I wanted to find another way to support myself with my work, to make things that are functional, that people will want to use and have in their house.
Do you find you collect more hand-made home goods?
Yeah. Whenever I can trade something for someone else’s hand-made thing I’ll do that. I also feel more apt to buy handmade things when I’m traveling, because I know I can’t ever get that anywhere else.
Having your studio in your home how do you delineate your live/work schedule?
I don’t. I’m trying to get better at it. It’s hard when I wake up and I walk by, and think ‘Oh right, there are all these things I have to do.’ I sometimes work out of the house with design work, I’ll be in an office, so that helps delineate graphic design work from MINNA work, not really from life though. Our TV is in the studio so I can’t sit down and watch a movie without weaving, but weaving just relaxes me. If I don’t weave a little everyday I feel super anxious, I need that, I’m making something but I’m not thinking about it. There’s not really much of a separation.
Well, if you’re creating objects for the home, it’s good too because you get to contextualize it, and imagine it in your own space.
I’ve read in other interviews that your business’s namesake MINNA was your maternal grandmother’s name before she changed it upon moving to America?
Yeah, my family is Jewish and she left Germany when she was 13. Her middle name was Minna, and when she got here she decided she didn’t want that anymore. She thought it was a ‘maid’s name.’ She’s a very proud stubborn woman and she didn’t want that association, she thought it was a negative connotation, so she dropped it. I liked the story, and I liked the abstract nature of the word, it doesn’t mean anything but it has a story behind it, that you don’t need to get right away unless you ask.
Has she seen your work?
What does she think?
She loves it, she’s really excited by it, she’s also of the generation where you do one thing your whole life, so she just thinks I’m indecisive.
Do you have any other artists or craftsmen in your family?
Yeah, not in my immediate family, my parents are not creative at all, but my two cousins are super creative and amazing artists. My cousin Steph, is an incredible textile artist also actually, she does embroidery. And my cousin Rachel, has an awesome store in LA called Other Wild. She’s also an amazing artist and dancer. It’s nice to have that connection. We’re also all queer, so that’s another really nice connection to have in the family.
Are there any upcoming events or workshops you’d like to promote?
I teach weaving every month or so, there is a link on my website. Also I’m working on another whole collection now that will launch in the end of January at New York Now. It’s building off this first collection, because I’m not ready for them to be done I want to bring in more stuff. There will be eight new rugs, four more blankets, and two more pillow designs. I’ll be doing a few pop-ups throughout the month, but if you want blankets or rugs you can get them anytime on my website.