Sondra Bernstein, founder of girl & the fig, returned to the acclaimed Plaza restaurant last week – this time as its artist-in-residence.
On January 25, the restaurant held a mixer for the public debut of Bernstein’s work; a series of digital art prints generated using artificial intelligence.
The images hung in tight groups on the buttery 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 hand as they stood in small groups admiring the artwork and chatting. Approximately 100 people attended the event, some of whom Bernstein knew from her days as a restaurant owner, but almost none of whom had seen her work with AI.
This is a point recently made by Bernstein; AI art is a very new field – one that is constantly evolving. The former restaurateur explores 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 it’s just a beautiful expression of who she really is.”
Although she’s not as well known for it, Bernstein’s passion for art isn’t new. She graduated with a BA in fine art photography and did her first show right after graduation.
Like her most recent one, this first exhibition took place in a restaurant.
“I remember hanging out with some friends at this restaurant and it felt like a big deal,” Bernstein said. “It was very surreal, to be honest, this whole experience. I didn’t really do it to show it off at the restaurant, I just did it to find my next chapter.”
Bernstein became interested in artificial intelligence in 2020, just after he retired from the daily grind of the restaurant, handing over most of his business responsibilities to co-founder John Toulz.
After seeing ads online for AI art platforms, she started “playing around.” This 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 loves the novelty and flexibility offered by the medium. She has created over 30,000 images in the last eight months.
“It’s very mobile for me. If I have my iPad and WIFI or internet, I can be out, I can be anywhere, I can be in bed. So that makes it a lot easier,” Bernstein said.
Bernstein has always tried to be on the cutting edge of technology, and says girl & the fig is the first restaurant in the Valley to join OpenTable, a reservation app.
She also works with other platforms and artists in the field of artificial intelligence. She has curated art through blockchain artist groups, helped build virtual worlds, and interacted with other artists in the digital space.
For so long, she treated the restaurant as a series of “mini art projects,” with the evolving menus, interior design, the launch of the foodie magazine The Fig Chronicles, and the cookbooks she wrote and designed herself.
Bernstein’s dual interest in art and technology makes this medium a natural, but the platform is not without controversy.
She currently uses a paid subscription to Midjourney, an AI art generator, as her primary creation platform. The company is under fire following a lawsuit launched recently by a trio of artists who claim such organizations have illegally used images produced by “millions of artists” in violation of 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, so I’ve been trying to get up-to-date information. I don’t care what anyone else is doing, I just want to feel really good about what I’m doing. I don’t want anyone to steal things, I don’t want anyone to think that they are stealing other people’s labor. So I’m getting clarification on that.’
Bernstein, a longtime photographer, points out that the first cameras were criticized as imitators because they created the image through machines.
With AI, she was able to get the results she could only dream of when all she had was her camera. The process still feels like art to her, but now her imagination is her lens.
“If you want to take pictures, you can’t do it without the camera and the camera can’t do it without you – and that’s my opinion on AI.”
When he creates his art, it is 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 wouldn’t have had a problem taking risks when I was younger, as I got older, the business got older, I was definitely a bit more risk-averse. Now that I had 400-500 employees, any risk that I would have really taken that I would have taken 10 years ago was affecting too many people if it went wrong,” Bernstein said. “Now I have no one but me. So if I want to take a chance and want to play with it, I don’t have to show it to anybody. I can only have my success and failure with me.”