Pamela Barsky: A Way with Words

By Stephanie Sporn

NEW YORK – Given her creative background in journalism and design, Pamela Barsky is as crafty and cheeky with words as she is with her accessories – and Reese Witherspoon, Lady Gaga and Chef Daniel Boulud are just a few celebrities to take notice. Much like Warhol, Lichtenstein and other artists in Sotheby’s upcoming Prints & Multiples sale, Barksy screen prints her products by hand in her small New York studio. After three years of running a thriving Etsy store and booths in popular retail spaces like Chelsea Market, Barksy opened her first brick-and-mortar shop just three weeks ago in the West Village. While the new space will soon feature a curated selection of vintage items from the designer’s travels, the core of her business are canvas and leather accessories that feature amusing, often ironic text – everything from odes to New York City to self-affirmations and indulgent confessions. Ahead of the auction, Barksy shares her perspective on printing, word art and the pieces in our Prints & Multiples sale that most inspire her.


Many of your bags are about art. Have the fine arts always played a major role in your life?  
From a young age, I wanted to own a gallery; I was buying art on layaway from a local gallery in seventh grade. I grew up in Detroit where we have an amazing art museum; I remember frequent weekend visits with my mom. There were art classes – sculpture, metalsmithing. One of my first memories was my mother teaching me the color wheel. Though it completely confused my attorney father, my mother was dead set on raising creative daughters.

How did you get started with your current business screen-printed accessories?
My degree is in journalism – I spent a decade writing advertising, then when I was 28, I opened a shop in LA that morphed into my designing and manufacturing career. New York has kindly allowed me to combine all these skills. My current business started years ago with blank journals, made from vintage books, which had unintelligible mutterings [on the covers]. Then, I started making blank books with my writing on the cover. I started making bags when I moved to New York at the advice of another manufacturer who was randomly next to me at a New York gift show. She saw the books I made with funny statements on them and insisted I put them on bags. It took a few years, but one day I realised I didn’t want to be lifting heavy boxes of books – bags were so much easier on the back. The printing came about because that’s how you get words on fabric. I had no background in silk-screening – just took a couple of private lessons and figured out the rest.

Where do you get your inspiration for these sayings? What are some of your favourite phrases you’ve used?  
Life, I guess. I sit down to write just like any writer. I’m just writing very, very, very short stories. My current favourites were inspired by things on Facebook. The first: “I had some extra pears. So I made a pear tart.” And: “My mother was right, I am very hard on shoes.”  


Many of your designs poke fun at art and fashion. Do you think people in those worlds take themselves too seriously?
Oh, I take myself very seriously. Problem is, hardly anyone else does. As far as fashion, I actually wish it were a bit more serious these days. Our new culture of disposable clothing makes me sad. Except for very high-end clothing, the art has gone missing. As for art, I’ve been collecting folk and outsider art for years. It is so honest and from the source, there is nothing about it that takes itself too seriously. I guess it makes sense I’m drawn to that. It is art made by people so compelled to get their ideas out that they don’t care about anything else.

Your fans range from Oscar winners to famous chefs. What do you think draws people to your products?  
I have a tendency to say what people are really thinking but too afraid to say themselves. Put that on a bag, and you’ve got a hit!  

Tell me more about your thoughts on word art and typography – why do words make such a visual impact?  
I think words are very powerful, and when used correctly, they can paint a picture better than an actual picture. But, take that statement with a grain of salt. I can’t draw, so words are all I’ve got.  

You’ve also dabbled in street art. What are your thoughts on that?
I really love it. For my birthday, my husband stenciled my logo around the West Village. We also did poster hangings, which was scary. We did this photo shoot of people holding my bags, and they were really cool. I’m currently working on a PR campaign where I’m taking vintage things, like a broken plate or old stuffed animal, and printing on them. I’m going to just leave items around the city, and it will be a sort of calling card for the store. So it’s like a combination of graffiti and advertising. I’m hoping that people will actually look for them. I really like the idea that in New York, you can use the street. I mean, art is really at that place right now where it’s gotten very commercial, but commercial has gotten very art-y. I’m helping them meet in between.  

To see Pamela's favourite pieces from Sotheby's upcoming Prints & Multiples auction, click below.  

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