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[whitespace] The Big Giant BraBall
Photograph by George Sakkestad

Breast in Show: The Big Giant BraBall attracted a lot of attention--and took up two parking spaces--on a recent stopover in downtown Santa Cruz.

The Giant BraBall Brawl

An art project involving thousands of bras first lifts, then separates two Bay Area artists

By Sarah Phelan

'SOME PEOPLE are naturally weird," says a passerby, upon spotting the Big Giant BraBall, parked outside the Santa Cruz Coffee Roasting Co. on a sunny May afternoon. The passerby, who is barefoot, has a point. Yes, it's weird to see a giant Braball parked on Pacific Avenue, particularly when said ball is perched on a trailer hitched behind an equally eye-catching pink 1963 Cadillac, whose side doors are emblazoned with the--dare we say it--titillating slogan, "Bras Across the Grand Canyon."

Weirder still, this BraBall, which measures five feet in diameter, weighs 1,300 pounds and consists of 14,000 bras donated by women worldwide, is currently rolling along the roads of California like some giant ball of string, and gathering more and more bras as women, both young and old, give up their bras along the way. Weirdest of all, the Big Giant BraBall stands at the center of a contentious art project that has divided two Bay area artists.

In the one corner there's Richmond-based conceptual artist Ronnie Nicolino, 61, who likes to dress in black while driving his pink BraMobile. In the other corner, is El Cerrito resident and fine artist Emily Duffy, 43, who likes to wear primary-colored dresses and drives a Mondrian Mobile, a small boxy sedan that Duffy has "postmodernized" in honor of abstract art pioneer Piet Mondrian.

Today, however, Duffy is in El Cerrito building her own bra ball while accusing Nicolino of having pilfered his BraBall concept from her. And while Nicolino is clearly having fun on the road, he says his Big Giant BraBall road tour has been tarnished by what he calls, "a Duffy-inspired smear campaign."

Says Nicolino of Duffy's current activities, "Emily's creating an angry bra ball that's built on lies and is inciting gender anger, whereas my Giant BraBall grew out of various attempts to convey America's obsession with the body and breast, and represents nine years of process, 10 international events, 50,000 people, and 40,000 bras, each with its own history."

Wonder BraBall

THE BIG GIANT BraBall brawl began innocuously enough last winter, when Nicolino announced he wanted to donate his bra collection to a worthy artistic group, and Duffy picked up the phone and gave him a call.

"All I wanted was 100 bras, with which to decorate an art car, but Nicolino said I'd have to take all 20,000 bras," says Duffy, who claims it was at that point in their conversation that the idea for a giant bra ball flashed into her mind.

"I told Nicolino my idea, and he said he loved it, but he'd first have to evaluate some other proposals," says Duffy, who immediately wrote up her concept and mailed it to Nicolino.

In a letter dated Dec. 5, 2000, Duffy describes a hands-on exhibit centered on a braball built around a silicon-sealed "yolk," measuring 3 feet in diameter. Wrote Duffy, "The yolk and boxes of thousands of bras would be delivered to an exhibit site. Signs would invite the public to build the bra ball. At the end of the exhibit, the ball would be dismantled back down to the yolk, the loose bars would be packed into their boxes, everything gets shipped to the next exhibit site."

But when Duffy and Nicolino eventually met--in a garage in Vallejo where Nicolino stores his bras--she says she was presented with a list of conflicting demands.

"Nicolino said I'd have to rent a warehouse, that the bra ball must continue to grow, and that I should take a couple of months off to visit all the roadside attractions in the United States," says Duffy, who submitted a revamped proposal, to no avail.

"A week later, Nicolino called to say I couldn't handle the project because I wasn't a group, that he was going to take my idea, but not to worry because he was going to give me credit," Duffy says.

That, according to Nicolino's version of events, is when all hell broke loose. First, Duffy's lawyer fired off a cease-and-desist letter. Nicolino's lawyer replied, with the retort that you can't copyright an idea. Next, Duffy sent out 100 emails asking for bras so she could protect her idea by building a BraBall herself. And currently, Duffy is getting a lot of media coverage, most of which, Nicolino claims, takes Duffy's side.

Says Duffy, who has so far received 7,000 bras, plus one jockstrap from a supportive husband, "The response to my emails was incredible. My goal is to build my bra ball to the height of the average woman and have it housed at a woman's museum or a breast cancer foundation. My ball is only made of these foamy little things, but they're so loaded with sexual innuendo and history, and it already weighs 700 pounds."

Along with the bras, women sent Duffy their stories.

"Most were about experiences with bras, one was from a woman scientist who'd experienced having her ideas stolen by men, and there were tons of supportive letters. Plus there were letters from women who've had cancer and will no longer be needing their bras, but wanted them to go somewhere meaningful," says Duffy, whose bra ball includes a prosthetic bra, sent by a woman who had a double mastectomy.

As for Nicolino's road tour, Duffy says, "As a woman I find it offensive that he's parading our underwear around."

Meanwhile, Nicolino says he's offended by what he calls Duffy's "sour grapes reaction."

"The idea for my Giant BraBall didn't come out of Emily's universe, though she did contribute important stuff," Nicolino says. "The reason I didn't give her the project was because she wanted to give it a dark side, with a knife sticking out of a Barbie's chest and silicon implants, and only the gallery-going public would see it, whereas my project involves every man and woman."

Asked how people on the street react, Nicolino says he gets everything from beautiful women blowing kisses to guys honking horns and hanging out of windows, shouting "Show us your tits!"

"As I was doing 30 miles per hour on the freeway this morning, this lady gave me a her bra through the open car window," says Nicolino, who kicked off his road tour in San Francisco, escorted by the Devil Dolls Motorcycle Club--women Nicolino describes as "babes on big Harleys, my security to make sure no one messes with my bras."

Is Nicolino obsessed with bras?

"After eight years working with them, it would be hard not to be," Nicolino begins, his train of thought interrupted by the sight of a meter man tucking a ticket under the BraMobile's windshield wiper.

"At least it matches my car," says Nicolino of the ticket, which he incurred because he forgot to feed the meter attached to the Big Giant BraBall's parking space.

Two women rush up, each pressing a hug and a lacy underwired bra on Nicolino.

"My mother figures I'm doing this because I was shy as a kid and now I'm making up for it in my golden years," says Nicolino, who slides back into his BraMobile after the women depart.

Leaving town already?

Nicolino nods. "There are no more bras in Santa Cruz, so I'm told," he shouts, as he hits the gas.

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From the June 6-13, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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