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[whitespace] Jerry Ross Barrish The Garbage Collector: 'I try not to use the same materials over and over again. I used to use a lot of Bic lighters. I used to use a lot of combs. I used to use a lot of car parts.'

One Man's Treasure

Jerry Ross Barrish creates sculptures out of cast-offs collected from beaches, junkyards and elsewhere

By Jenn Shreve

Step into Jerry Ross Barrish's studio in the rapidly gentrifying China Basin, and you are transported into a parallel universe inhabited by plastic people and animals. A band strikes up a song in one corner. Elsewhere, a dog is barking into the air. One woman gives birth, while another waits pensively for the phone to ring.

What's most remarkable about Barrish's sculptures is not the stories they tell, but the way they're constructed. The 60-year-old artist combs beaches, junkyards and highways for raw materials, assembling each piece from a colorful palette of scraps and waste. Each sculpture is a dual narrative--the story or emotion that Barrish wishes to convey and the unspoken tale of items discarded, discovered, taken apart and reinvented.

I met Barrish in July at his studio, where he was preparing for a show at the Ebert Gallery in San Francisco. A retrospective of Barrish's other artistic endeavor, filmmaking, recently played at the Red Vic.

How long have you been doing this kind of art?

I was a more traditional sculptor in the late '60s, early '70s. I went to the Art Institute as a sculptor. But then I changed my major the first day of class to filmmaking. For about 15 years, I didn't do any sculpting at all. I just made movies. Then, in 1989, I decided to make a Christmas tree from junk that I found on the beach. As I collected plastic to make this Christmas tree, I started seeing images and figures in the material, so I started to make other stuff out of this plastic material. The work became really obsessive. You can see what I've done in 10 years.

Where do you look for materials?

In the beginning, I only had to pick up stuff from the beaches. Now I pick things up off of the street, off the highway. I go to places like Urban Ore [a junkyard in Berkeley] and recycling centers. I still walk the beaches once in a while, but I find very little of what I can use on the beaches now. The beaches are much cleaner than they were back in '89.

I try not to use the same materials over and over again. I used to use a lot of Bic lighters. I used to use a lot of combs. I used to use a lot of car parts. Most of the stuff I started with was about the size of a dog. As the work got larger, the material had to be a little bit more sturdy.

With a lot of the pieces, I can't tell what the original materials were, except when you use an actual chair.

I made the chair. If there's a phone, I make the phone. I have a collection of sculptures inspired by George Grosz. They're war veterans. They have cups in their hands. I make the cups. I could use a cup, but that's too easy. I'd rather make the cup.

Are there other qualities that you look for when you're out searching?

I just pick up things that are interesting and sort them by color into my palette [a large shelf containing pieces of plastic], and avoid real thin plastic or plastic that won't hold up. A lot of people want to give me toys. They think that this stuff is made out of toys. There are toy elements in these pieces. Usually, if I find a toy, I take the toy apart and only use like one-20th of it. But I'm always looking for that magical piece that triggers what's going to happen. That's the best part.

Some people have used the word "painterly" to describe my work, because there are a lot of color decisions to be made. Not only is there a structure in putting things together, but trying to make things work with the right colors. Sometimes I have to find a head that not only goes with the body but is the right color. Another decision I have to make is do I put a face on it or not? Is it going to be really abstract or really detailed?

Are your pieces inspired by what you find, or do you have a vision of what you want to do and then start searching for the right objects?

For the first three to five years, the materials always dictated what the sculpture was going to be. It was almost like finding the vertebrae of a dinosaur, and then building a whole dinosaur from the one vertebrae. I'm at the point now where I can create something from an idea. But almost every new piece that I make is generated by a recently found piece. And all the other materials I collect are auxiliary pieces that fill in the gaps.

Once in a while, I'll see something in a painting or in a movie on a billboard or at a restaurant--a gesture or something that I like--and I will try to capture that. My work is pretty narrative. I try to capture some kind of gesture movement in the materials, that these things have a life to them. They have some kind of motion, like a still photographer who catches action in a freeze frame.

Do you still make movies?

Filmmakers never know if they're ever going to make another film. I'm writing a script to make a film. And then I was thinking about changing the script from film to maybe try and write it as a play. But I don't have a lot of impetus to do it, because it's such a struggle to get the money, and I haven't had any backing. I've been really having a hard time.

Have you ever thought of animating your sculptures?

Other people have said that, because I'm a filmmaker. But what I am trying to do is try to make them animated without doing film. I think a lot of these pieces look like I caught them in movement. But it would be nice if someone like the people from Pixar or somebody came in and decided they'd like to use my characters for a film or something.

How do you explain your work to people who aren't art aficionados?

When people ask me what I do, I say that I make figurative art out of found materials, mostly plastic. My work isn't for everybody. I've had people say, "I love this stuff. What is it? Is this art?" I've had other people who are turned off because it's plastic and it's found. But I'm in some fine collections. I'm in the Oakland Museum, I'm in the San Jose Museum. I'm in the UC Extension Museum .

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From the September 13, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

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