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INTERVIEW WITH SYLVIA AKA LEE MAERZSY
Joe caught up with Lee Maerzsy aka Sylvia, the founder of Let It Bleed at Zum Goldenen Hahn our local bar.
When did you found let It Bleed?
Let me see…I’ve been in Berlin for 20 years. It must have been 14 years ago now.
And it was in a different location?
Yep it was still in Kreuzberg but in a different location. At that time I was selling a lot in markets and from my experience in the markets I realised that I needed a space where I could work and also prepare things for the market. I hadn’t initially intended to set up a shop. And then I met Juan who’s now a very good friend of mine - Juan was also doing markets and we started talking and decided to look for a space together. He came up with the name of the shop.
That’s interesting. Where does the name come from?
It’s a song by the Rolling Stones. Everyone has all sorts of theories of where the name comes from but in actual fact that’s where it comes from. He plays in a band as well as designing fashion and he’s really into rock music culture. He told me that ‘let it bleed’ means that you’re putting all of your passion into what you’re doing. So the name was never my idea and I can’t take the credit there.
Whose idea was it to flip the letters so that it’s printed backwards?
That was me, actually. I came up with the idea in a casual spontaneous kind of way but with time I’ve realised the associations that it has. I guess it might be about doing things the other way around, doing things differently. Which is perhaps how I feel about myself. I’m also left-handed. The letters also look a bit like Russian typography when they’re printed in black on a white background.
So what was the original concept behind the shop?
There wasn’t really a concept at the start. The concept developed over time between myself and Juan. He is more of a designer and my only interest at that time was to do silk screen printing for textiles because I was selling that at the markets. Even though we were doing completely different things we still had, I guess, that spirit of independent experimentation - this was something that I was discovering a lot at the markets. In the market scene there were a lot of people who were just doing their own thing. And I guess I wanted this to be reflected in the shop.
So at the beginning you were focussing mainly on fashion, on textiles - did you have any artwork in the shop?
Not really - I was doing my own artwork. I was focussing a lot on things related to Berlin. I was thinking also about tourism, thinking about the idea of selling the spirit of the city. I remember at the time a lot of people were laughing at me because there wasn’t so much tourism then as there is now. I told them that this city was going to explode. I was doing a lot of stuff with designs related to Berlin. I guess I was a bit entranced by the city. I felt the need to express something of Berlin. I remember doing a series of postcards with animals in Berlin purely because to see wild animals wandering around and so much green was something completely new for me and it was something that I saw on a regular basis here in the city. And then of course I was also doing a lot of designs related to my identity or that were fun for me. If I thought I would wear a particular t shirt I would sell it in the shop.
When did you move the shop to its current location and why did you do that?
The place where we were located, on Wienerstrasse, wasn’t so good for foot traffic and my shop partner Juan wanted to get his own shop with his wife where he could exclusively sell his own work. By chance this place came up. It had been a screen printing place and they were leaving so I went down there, expressed my interest and managed to get it. I’m really happy about the location. And we’ve been here for almost 10 years now.
At what point did you decide to focus a bit more on artwork?
Well, to be brutally honest, I was a little tired of the whole t shirt thing. When you make your own t shirts you have to have all the t shirts in a wide variety of colours and sizes and having artwork seemed a lot easier. I was always coming at it from a more artistic angle and this way I didn’t need to keep up with the latest fashion trends.
So focussing on local art - was that a concept that you came up with right from the beginning?
It evolved with time. I don’t consider myself to be a one woman band and as such I never wanted it just to be about me. I saw that there were so many cool things out there and I was hugely inspired by what other people around me were producing.
Do you think that there is anything that sets Let It Bleed apart from other shops?
I think nowadays to have a shop just selling local art is quite unusual in Berlin. Some years ago there were a few because I was selling my own work there. Nowadays it seems the game has changed a bit. Of course it wasn’t originally my idea to be so focussed on local artists but the more I think about it actually, and the more we establish ourselves, the more it seems it has a political statement to it. Especially when there are increasingly less places that do that. Not because people don’t want to do it, but because money-wise it’s quite difficult to do it.
So I assume at one point were you running the shop alone?
Yes I was running the shop for 2 years in the old location alone. And then I had a few years here alone as well.
Was it lonely?
It was very lonely and it wasn’t my thing. This is something that I recognise. Sometimes it’s not easy to have a partner but to orchestrate everything alone was very tiring. It wasn’t very fulfilling. It was very all consuming as well and there came a moment when I was spending more time thinking about what would be profitable for the shop to enable me to pay the rent than focussing on what I wanted to do and it was less about exploring things that I wanted to talk about - for example being gay. At the beginning I wanted to explore those ideas in T shirts for example and this started to fall by the wayside. It was no longer fun. And especially without someone else who you could ping pong ideas off.
And that was when you brought Jordi on board?
Jordi (Bisquert) was selling his artwork in my shop. He was one of the first artists that I got. When I realised that I wouldn’t have time to commit to the shop because I was planning to start to study to be a kindergarten teacher, I started talking to all the artists whose work I was selling in the shop, asking them if they would like to get involved. Nobody had the time and the energy aside from Jordi. Initially he had been reluctant but then he did a pop up in the shop with another artist and after that he was hooked. He was the first on board. We started with 4 and after a few months we were 2 - just myself and Jordi running the shop for about a year and a half. Then I dropped out because of my studies and then you (Joe) got involved and slowly more people started joining the collective.
Now there are 8 of us running the shop together. Why do you think that works? Sometimes collectives can be problematic.
I wouldn’t call myself a connoisseur of collectives but maybe the difference between us and other collectives is that we have a common understanding and that nobody exclusively lives from the sales that they make in the shop. So the pressure is somewhere else. It’s a place where artists can be a little free. How free you are of course is your own decision because we also need to sell.
I think also the combination of personalities works and that we take on one person at a time, we see how it goes and we’ve been very lucky with the people that have got involved so far.
I think building it slowly has helped. Initially it was just yourself and Jordi and then you gradually got other people involved who you had had experience of and slowly the family grew in a stable kind of way.
I know from my own experience it’s very nice to talk directly to people who are buying your work and vice versa it’s really nice for people buying work to have the chance (if they’re lucky and the artist is in the shop) to get to chat to the artists themselves. I think this is something that people really get a kick out of.
Yes I think that’s true. It’s a very rich experience on both sides.
It’s also a good arena for us as artists to experiment. It’s interesting to see how people respond to our artwork. You don’t have to have an exhibition but you can produce new work and put it straight into the shop. It’s very direct.
Yes, exactly. And I think this is something that makes Let It Bleed particularly special. It’s interesting. It’s like a cross between an open studio and a shop.
I know if we’re working in the shop, working on our own artwork then I think this is something that people respond really positively to. It adds value to their experience.
How about your artwork? You have an exhibition coming up in the shop that we’re very excited about. I know that you have been doing artwork but it hasn’t been in the forefront of your mind. But now you’ve decided to do your first solo exhibition in a while. What prompted that?
I hadn’t had the energy to commit to working on art as much as I might have like because of my commitments to working at the kindergarten. But at some point, after going to so many exhibitions at the shop and being around other artists I felt that the time had come to show what I had been working on and make use of the space.
This series that you’re going to exhibit - was there any particular inspiration behind that or was it something that you had been experimenting with?
This was something that had started a little bit as an experiment. My background is a little bit more founded in the world of photography and I’m not so skilled at drawing or painting. It’s something that is connected to this world of photography - it has an experimental element to it and it has this thing which is very abstract. The shop focusses more on more illustrative work rather than abstract work and initially this was what discouraged me from taking the plunge. But then after some meetings of the collective where we all discussed artwork together, both illustrative work and abstract, I was newly encouraged. When we did our last group exhibition ‘Let It Pop 4’ I exhibited some of my work and I saw how people reacted to the work and that helped me feel more confident about these new pieces.
That’s interesting because I think that links back to what you we’re saying about there not being so many places any more in Berlin where you can do this. What’s good about having a place which is relatively cheap to run means that the time gap between the production of the artwork and its exposure is relatively short and so experimentation is encouraged. We have the freedom to experiment. Sadly in Berlin because of market forces these places, these opportunities, are becoming fewer and fewer. I guess that the roots of anything creative is a free space where you’re permitted to make mistakes and try out new things. That’s the basis of any creative scene. Let’s hope that these kinds of creative spaces can continue to exist in Berlin.
I'm crossing my fingers. I agree. Let’s hope that we can continue having fun doing what we’re doing!
SEE LEE MAERSZY'S WORK
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