Sculptor Jerry Barrish Brings “Plastic Man” To Tropic Cinema
Exclusive interview by Shirrel Rhoades
In the movie “The Graduate,” young Ben gets one word of advice, just one word, from a friend of his father: “Plastics.”
This is known as “found objects” art. Jerry Barrish does with plastic what Stanley Papio did with car bumpers, old bolts, springs, and other pieces of metal. But Barrish likes to convert plastic pipes, plastic jugs, plastic toys, you name it, into whimsical animals and fascinating 3D sketches of people.
People call him “Plastic Man.”
In fact, that’s the title of a documentary about him: “Plastic Man: The Artful Life of Jerry Ross Barrish.” It will be showing Sunday night at the Tropic Cinema, kind of a codicil to the Papio Kinetic Sculpture & Art Bike Parade that takes place this weekend.
Jerry Barrish will be on hand to introduce the film and answer questions afterward.
You’ll find Barrish an interesting guy. A big bear of a man, head topped by a shock of white hair, he grew up in a boxing and mob-connected family. “Tough Jews,” as he describes them. His father associated with such questionable characters as Mickey Cohen, Jimmy Hoffa, and Jimmy “The Weasel” Fratianno.
“I grew up in an artistic void,” he says. “I was more of a jock.” But at ten or eleven he went on a field trip to the Museum of Art in San Francisco and, as he describes the experience, “I was blown away.”
At 77, he considers himself in the middle of his career as an artist, long after his old friends have retired. But, then, Barrish has already had two other careers.
Fresh out of the army, he became a bail bondsman. But being more liberal than many of his colleagues in the business, he put up bail for numerous Sixties activists and protesters -- Eldridge Cleaver, Mario Savio, Huey Newton, and Dennis Banks among his clients. Once he guaranteed bail for 865 people arrested in a sit-in, the largest mass arrest for civil liberties in the United States.
Then he decided to become an artist. He even enrolled in San Francisco Art Institute. But he only lasted through one class before switching his major to filmmaking. Over the next 15 years he wrote and directed three feature films, won a lot of awards, even appeared in Wim Wender’s “Wings of Desire” as an American filmmaker directing Peter Falk.
But one day Barrish went walking on the beach in front of his Pacifica, California, home and came across a piece of discarded plastic. That changed everything.
“At first I thought I’d make a plastic Christmas tree,” he remembers. “Then as I looked at the piece I began to see something else. It spoke to me.”
He works out of a huge 3,000-square-foot studio in San Francisco, a warehouse that holds barrels of plastic scraps, shelves of plastic objects, bins of plastic balls. The workspace itself is small, little more than a large table. One room is like a gallery, displaying over 1,000 sculptures -- imaginative images of birds, dogs, ballerinas, musicians, boxers, men in top hats, even Don Quixote on a horse.
“These works often evolve. Some take over ten years. Don Quixote, for instance. It started out as just a horse. When I came across the right material, it became a rider on a horse. Then I found the perfect ‘hat’ and it became Don Quixote. Like magic.”
He works every day in his studio. Busloads of people stop by for studio visits. “I love watching them running around studio, the look on their face as they view the different pieces.
“Men perceive my work different than women do,” he observes. “Men see humor and whimsy in my work. Women see pathos and sadness.”
But the constant denominator is both asking, “How do you get this movement? How do you create such life with this material?”
It’s intuitive, he says.
California has a long history of artists working with found materials. Mostly rusty metal, weathered wood. What sets Barrish apart from other artists is his medium: plastic. “It makes me unique, but also it hurts my career. Galleries are always saying they want me to work in bronze. But I like plastic. It calls to me.”
He tries to explain. “Michelangelo said the rocks speak to him; well, this plastic stuff spoke to me. I started seeing images in the material I was picking up. I think I’m very fortunate. I found my voice through this plastic.”
Armed with rubber mallet, glue gun, and handsaw, he fashions works of art from detritus and refuse. “This work could not have been made fifty years ago,” he points out. “Plastic is constantly evolving. There are different materials today. And what people throw away is constantly changing -- vacuum cleaners, plumbing, automobile parts.”
He goes scavenging weekly, walking the beaches (“They’re much cleaner today”), picking stuff up along the highway, visiting recycling centers. “It’s ritualistic,” he says.
Despite his own filmmaking background, this documentary came about on its own. Janis Plotkin, programmer for Mill Valley Film Festival, was a collector of Barrish’s work. German filmmaker Ilona Ziok saw the pieces at her home, and hired William Farley (“Of Men and Angels”) to shoot a sample reel, envisioning a documentary. However, the footage got shelved at her production company for about 5 years. “It just sat there,” shrugs Barrish. “Just shots of talking heads, it didn’t have a story.”
Then Janis Plotkin, who had dreams about being a film producer, decided to take over the project with Farley as director. The story emerged as Barrish applied for a commission to do a major public sculpture. Would he succeed, or be overlooked because of his use of organic polymers as a medium?
“Plastic Man: The Artful Life of Jerry Ross Barrish” traces his career, his struggles to get his art recognized. Last month the film won the audience award for Best Documentary at the Pittsburgh Jewish Film Festival.