In the process of creating a new piece for her recycled fruit crate label series entitled The California Collection, San Mateo artist Harriete Estel Berman found herself drawn to a simply-designed 1930s Sunkist label.
Most historic fruit crate labels were typically embellished with images and illustrations that marketed their wares. But the Sunkist label just read “truth,” in a striking golden font.
“In a time when truth was a terribly powerful concept, I felt like it needed nothing else, so I put it away,” Berman says. “But three years later, after the election with 45 -- President Donald Trump -- we’re faced with this new reality which seems to get worse all the time.” She says the Trump administration’s cries of "fake news" and alternative facts have made her realize truth was not quite as absolute as she thought it once was.
For the past three decades, Berman has created recycled sculptures and jewelry imbued with critical commentary on everything from gun violence to the creation of identity within consumer society. Her California Collection jewelry series re-purposes fruit crate labels and tin cans to create accessories that reflect on California’s simultaneously consumerist and green culture. Her creative output includes circuit board bracelets inspired by Silicon Valley’s flourishing tech industry and recycled milk bottles transformed into delicately textured jewelry.
But in Truth, the latest addition to her California Collection series, Berman confronts the current administration’s destabilization of the idea of “truth” and examines our own responsibility in this new moral climate. "I’m looking at this word 'truth' and I’m here actually, literally fabricating truth - the same way the administration is," she says.
Berman is currently in the process of creating two jewelry pieces that explore the roots of Trump's current agenda against truth, respectively named Alternative Facts and Circular Logic. She spares no symbolism in the construction of each bracelet: Alternative Facts is formed around a web-like structure echoing the administration's recent web of alleged collusion with Russia; the face of the bracelet itself is printed with nutritional facts, which Berman considers another instance of "alternative facts" that we experience in our daily lives.
Berman's decades of overtly political work are informed by the historically activist history of jewelry. The artist has taken notes from the patriotic "V for Victory" brooch that was popular during World War II, and peace sign jewelry protesting American involvement in the Vietnam war. Berman believes artists are messengers of a society, as their works are in direct conversation with the values and politics of the current culture.
"We generally look at past civilizations through their art, from cave paintings to jewelry found at burial sites," she says. "It’s how we evaluate their culture. It’s the most concrete voice that we have."
Berman channels her reflections on politics through making jewelry. But she says the responsibility lies not only on the shoulders of artists to create work that responds to and resists the actions of the current administration.
"Everything is in such an upheaval, and our elected representatives need the support of their constituents," Berman says. "We can no longer assume that our government is going to run consistently and fairly without our voice. So you must do anything you can do to raise your voice."
Funding for KQED Arts is provided by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
Support is also provided by Yogen and Peggy Dalal, Diane B. Wilsey, the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Helen Sarah Steyer, the William and Gretchen Kimball Fund, and the members of KQED