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BraBall Brawl

An art project revolving around 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 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 thought-provoking slogan, "Bras Across the Grand Canyon."

Weirder still, this BraBall, which measures 5 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, gathering more and more bras as women, both young and old, give up their bras along the way. Weirdest of all, this BraBall stands at the center of a contentious art project that has divided two Bay Area artists.

In 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 while driving a Mondrian Mobile, a small, boxy sedan which Duffy has "postmodernized" in honor of abstract art pioneer Piet Mondrian.

Today, however, Duffy is in El Cerrito building her own BraBall while accusing Nicolino of having pilfered his BraBall concept from her. And while Nicolino is clearly having fun on the road, he says his 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."

The 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 BraBall 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.

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.

"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, claiming 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.

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."

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 subtle kisses to guys honking horns and hanging out of windows, shouting, "Show us your tits!"

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From the May 31-June 6, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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