Sondra Bernstein is back at girl & the fig—this time with AI art
Sondra Bernstein, founder of girl & the fig, returned to the famed Plaza restaurant last week—this time as its resident artist.
On Jan. 25, the restaurant held an mixer to publicly debut Bernstein’s work; a series of digital art prints generated using Artificial Intelligence.
The images hung in close groupings on the butter-yellow walls in the dining area, while her larger pieces were given ample space in the bar area.
Almost everyone had a complimentary glass of sparkling wine in their hands as they stood in small groups admiring the artwork and chatting. Roughly 100 people attended the event, some Bernstein knew from her days as an owner of the restaurant, but almost none of them had ever seen her work with AI art.
It’s a pivot Bernstein made recently; AI art is a very new field — one that is constantly evolving. The former restaurateur has been exploring the medium and her next chapter in life.
“I think she’s one of the most visually creative people,” said Alison Kilmer, a friend who attended the party. “And this is just a lovely expression of who she really is.”
While she’s not as known for it, Bernstein’s passion for art isn’t new. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts photography, and had her first show just after she graduated.
Like her most recent, that first exhibit was held in a restaurant.
“I remember with a couple friends hanging the show in this restaurant and it felt like such a big deal,” Bernstein said. “Now, it’s been very surreal honestly, this whole experience. I really didn’t do it to show in the restaurant, I just did it to find my next chapter.”
Bernstein became interested in AI art in 2020, just after taking a step back from running the day-to-day at the restaurant, handing most of her business responsibilities to co-founder John Toulze.
After seeing ads online for AI art platforms, she started “playing around.” It opened her up to a whole new world of creativity. Bernstein’s approach to art has always stemmed from a place of playfulness and curiosity, and she loved the newness and flexibility the medium offered. She’s created over 30,000 images in the last eight months.
“It’s very mobile for me. If I have my iPad and a WIFI or internet, I can be outside, I can be anywhere, I can be in bed. So it makes for a lot of ease,” Bernstein said.
Bernstein has always tried to be on the forefront of tech, and says girl & the fig was the first restaurant in the Valley to get on OpenTable, a reservation app.
She also works with other platforms and artists in the AI landscape. She’s curated art through blockchain artist pools, helped build out virtual worlds and interacts with other artists in the digital space.
For so long, she treated the restaurant as a series of “mini art projects,” with its evolving menus, interior deign, launching the foodie newspaper the “Fig Chronicles,” and the cookbooks, which she wrote and designed herself.
Bernstein’s dual interest in art and tech makes this medium a natural fit, but the platform is not without controversy.
She currently uses a paid subscription to Midjourney, an AI art generator, as her main platform to create. The company is under fire following a lawsuit recently launched by a trio of artists who claim such organizations have illegally used images produced by “millions of artists,” infringing on their legal copyrights.
“I’m very conscientious about the ethical aspects of AI, and trying to really understand how that works,” Bernstein said. “I think there’s a lot of misinformation out there, and so I’ve been trying to get actual information. I don’t care what anybody else does I just wanna feel really good about what I’m doing. I don’t want anybody to steal stuff, I don’t want anyone to think that I’m stealing other people’s work. So, I’m getting clarification on that.”
Bernstein, a longtime photographer, points out that the first cameras were criticized as a copycat medium, since it created the image by machinery.
With AI, she’s been able to get the results that she could only dream about when all she had was her camera. The process still feels like art to her, but now, her imagination is her lens.
“If you wanna make photographs, you can’t do it without the camera and the camera can’t make it without you — and that’s how I feel about AI.”
When she creates her art, it’s not with a public show or other people in mind; it’s often about having a creative outlet to explore without fear of failure.
“I would have no issue taking risks when I was younger, as I got older, the business got older, I definitely was a little more risk averse. Now I had, at time 400-500 employees, any risk that I would really take, that I would’ve taken 10 years prior, was affecting too many people if it messed up,” Bernstein said. “Now, I don’t have anybody but me. So, if I wanna take a risk and I wanna play with this I don’t have to show anybody. I can have my success and my failures just with myself.”