Martin Bernstein, installation artist: His life in a Sesame cave

~ Milica Puric ~ 

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Artist Martin Bernstein in his Sesame cave studio 

met artist Martin Bernstein one summer evening at crowded Zhou Brothers Art Center in Chicago. It was the third Friday of the month, the time, when artists who have their own studios in the building open their doors to visitors. That night building was full of people who walk from one studio to another and from one floor to another.

Third Fridays at Zhou Brothers Art Center are maybe the most beautiful gatherings in Chicago. They are organized by famous artists Da Huang and Shan Zou Zhou who came to America from China in 1986 and redecorated this old, dirty warehouse on South Side Chicago into the beautiful art center.

Martin Bernstein’s art studio (and his home at the same time) is on the third floor of the building. Visitors can enter the place from the main door and from another gallery room full of unusual, bluish installations (on the photo below). Through this room, they can walk straight to one of the strangest place in Chicago — Martin Bernstein’s art studio.


From the bottom to the top, from one wall to another, from one room to another, this unusual place is filled with the most unusual things whose shapes and colors interweave and melt into one. Hundreds of colored beads, wires, ribbons, flowers, papers, curtains and different materials are hanging from the ceiling and wrapping almost every object in his studio. In the middle of this shiny, weird jungle, artist Martin Bernstein was standing and talking to the visitors, while the calming music of nature, birds, and water was coming from the background. Everything was unusual.

Visitors were walking through the place looking around and curiously exploring objects, shapes, and colors. Others were talking to the Bernstein or waiting in the line for the conversation with him. They had a lot of questions. They asked about the space, his sculptures, paintings, beads, and jewelry. Many of them are surprised by the fact that the artist lives here. This art cave is his home.  Martin Bernstein answered every question friendly and patiently.

“I’ve been collecting things over the years and slowly turning my home into a gallery space. My environment became my canvas.” He turned his home into a permanent art installation. Unlike other artists, whose installations have space and time frames, Martin Bernstein installation is permanent and he truly lives in it. It is a constant exhibition without beginning and the end. 

We sat in his living room, in the middle of the atelier, and started chatting. I was looking around and noticed that he colored almost every piece of his furniture — pillows, heavy dark curtains, chairs, mirrors, lamps, hats. “At the beginning, even before I moved to Chicago, I painted all my luggage because it was crappy luggage. I would buy something in second-hand stores, and when I asked what is wrong with stuff, they would tell me — they are old. I wanted to make them more beautiful and I did.”


He colored almost everything around him and he doesn’t stop. if he doesn’t like something he simply starts coloring and changing. “But there are some pieces, like my mother’s table, that I didn’t paint because of emotional value and memories.”

He came to Chicago from Miami. He came to Florida from Los Angeles to be with his father during his last days. After his father died, he moved to Chicago. His only criterion was to find a good studio, and he found it at the building that Zhou Brothers just bought. “If I didn’t have a dog, probably I wouldn’t be here because the building was dusty and full of trash. The neighborhood was empty. It wasn’t like today.”


He planned to have a space for displaying his paintings and organize little installations, but then he started coloring. “I would look, for example, a cement wall and see a spot for me to work on and I would work. It is a little crazy because I could be making paintings or jewelry, something people can relate to or can buy, instead of tying things to my ceilings, walls and making bizarre things. But, I don’t know when I am doing it. I’ve never thought about the practical side of creation.”

He said that there was a cute coconut tree house in Miami. “That was the environment I would live in, so in a way, I created here that environment with the tree and birds.”


He said that he is a little annoyed with unfamiliar people coming into his studio/home.
“At first, people don’t understand that this is a studio, but also a private place because there is so much around. But, then, they see furniture and realize this is my home. Fortunately, nothing bad happened. I am sure some bad people came here, but I was fortunate so far. I think I have good karma and when you put there it is like an amulet against bad people. Also, I try to declare private space.”

He said that he is happy that people can come to see his work (every third Friday of the month), because back in the days, at the beginning of his career, things were different.

15. Martin Bernstein studio

”Early on, when I was young I was trying to show my work to people. I was knocking on the doors, but didn’t get anywhere. The doors remained closed. And that was hard, because people must know who you are as an artist. And if you are rejected, nobody knows about you. Then I started painting clothes and wear painted clothes. Actually, I made a living selling painted clothes. And that wasn’t just throwing a few dots of paint. These were real paintings and it was good for a while. I was trying to declare myself as an artist and I looked like a sculpture moving through space. People would come to me and ask me about that. Now when I look back it looked a little weird, but I had to do that.”

That’s why the idea about the third Friday is excellent. “People can come to see me and my work. I touch them with my art and that is a wonderful thing. I am an unknown artist, but I am not as an unknown as I used to be: nonexisting. That gives me satisfaction, because I don’t have to prove myself every time when I go out and be my own billboard and sell board.”


Also, in the beginning, he felt uncomfortable standing in the middle of the studio and talking to people, but he got used to it, and now he is pretty comfortable. He talked to visitors about his installation, his paintings, and his beautiful jewelry, which he sells individually and at the biggest art shows in America. Every piece of his jewelry is unique, sophisticated and handmade. “It takes me one week to make just one piece of the necklace!” he said.

Fortunately, it took less time to color the fancy shoes he wore during our interview. “Yesterday I like them, but not today!” he joked. Shoes, lamps, canvases, jewelry, chandeliers, hats — for artist Martin Bernstein, everything is art. Everything can be artistically refined and stylized in one and only Martin Bernstein’s style and in his Sesame cave.


~ Milica Puric ~ 


2 thoughts on “Martin Bernstein, installation artist: His life in a Sesame cave

  1. Anonymous

    This is a great article and the story. I think I have to visit this super interesting place and experience the atmosphere…

  2. Sophia W.

    I have been there during the summer and I like it a lot. That is really like entering Sesame cave… Great artist, great installation!


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