Children’s laughter fills the studio when I enter the Textile Arts Center’s Manhattan location on a Wednesday afternoon. After-school programming is in full force. Yet October WIP artist, Erik Bergrin, remains focused. He has just returned from a supply run and jumps back to his fiber sculptures. After devoting 4 to 5 years to making larger-than-life humanoid works, he’s using the residency to concentrate on figures. Using his 7-foot sculptures as the reference point, Bergrin considers his current work “miniature.” But the subject matter is anything but small. It may be the most universal topic of all: the life and death cycle.
“My concept is a ritualistic storytelling of my version of mental hell,” he tells me during an interview. Specifically, Bergrin is interested in the negative thoughts that haunt us over and over again from birth. “That’s being in your own hell all the time,” he says.
Bergrin began exploring these ideas in “Shadowwork,” a collection of giant fiber sculptures he premiered at Marlborough Contemporary on W. 25th St. in May. His inspiration: ‘Mummy Juanita.’ Juanita was an Incan girl who was sacrificed to the gods in the 1400s. At the time, she was somewhere between 11 and 15 years old. When anthropologists found her in the 1990s, Bergrin explains that she was in “perfect form, frozen in the mountains.”
“Juanita knew for about 10 to 12 years that she was going to die,” says Bergrin. “I became obsessed with her story. I became obsessed with this idea of knowing you’re going to die. You must free yourself or be trapped by fear. She’s the mascot for that idea.”
Bergrin’s “Shadowwork” sculptures depict different symbols and actions related to death and mental anguish. One of the sculptures is even titled “Juanita.” Made from jute, burlap, boning, teeth, clay, and nails, the sculpture stands at 6 feet 11 inches. Bergrin does not consider the themes in his work morbid. Instead, he sees the death of negative thoughts as “what leads to happiness.”
Bergrin got his start in fiber making costumes. As a college psychology student, he wanted to have show-stopping attire for clubs. With no formal training, he assembled outlandish outfits. By the end of college, he realized he had enough for a portfolio. He put one together and landed a job in a puppet shop. Since then, he has worked in Broadway costume shops and taken continuing studies classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology. He recently worked as the costume designer for John Cameron Mitchell’s “Origin of Love, The Songs and Stories of Hedwig” tour.
In his personal artistic work, Bergrin remains fascinated by stories like Juanita’s and how they relate to human psychology and meditation. Fittingly, he enjoys coming to TAC late at night when possible.
“I love being in the studio alone,” he says, adding that the residency has afforded him the time and space he needs to mull over some of the more serious topics in his work.
Like his fiber sculptures, Bergrin’s WIP workshop on Oct. 29th will start with a meditation exercise. He wants to guide people in meeting their personal demon and “ripping it out, kindly.” He asks that those who come to the workshop arrive with generosity toward themselves.
“Don’t be hard on yourself,” says Bergrin. “You’re going to find what you need to overcome through digging and digging. It’s only after you come to peace with your demon that you can experience a shift.”
Workshop participants will then make a textile-based representation of their personal demon. You can learn more about the workshop and RSVP here.
“I know the workshop will happen right around Halloween, but it’s anything but spooky,” says Bergrin. “Think of it—and my work—as optimistic.”
You can visit Erik's studio installation for WIP now through October 31st at TAC Manhattan, and learn more about his work and process during Artist Open Hours - Saturdays from 2-5pm. Learn more.