One could be forgiven for thinking Jerry Barrish’s studio was a junkyard. After all, it’s filled with discarded plastic materials gathered from recycling centers, scrap yards, and the beach near his home in Pacifica. But in an act of alchemy, Barrish transforms these alternative materials into assemblage sculptures, often of musicians and animals, noted for their nuanced sense of character, gesture, and narrative.
This transformation is only one in a life full of metamorphoses. After a stint in the army, Barrish started a bail bond business in San Francisco in 1961, at age 22, and found himself at the center of the civil rights, anti-war, and free speech movements, bailing out many arrested protesters. In 1971, he took advantage of the GI Bill to attend SFAI, where he majored in film. “It was an amazing time to be an independent filmmaker at the school,” says Barrish, who studied with central figures in experimental film including James Broughton, Larry Jordan, and George Kuchar. Over the next 15 years he made three feature-length films, which screened in venues from the MoMA in New York to festivals in Germany.
In 1989, inspired by a traffic cone that he found on the beach, Barrish began making plastic assemblages, and that has remained his primary style. “I think the hardest thing for any artist in any field is to find their own voice, to make their work their work,” says Barrish. “I found a voice, and I am really happy with the results.”
He’s not the only one. His sculptures are in the collections of institutions including the Oakland Museum of California and the di Rosa Preserve, and his first public art piece, a 16-foot-tall bronze trumpet player, will be installed at Hunters Point Shipyard next year. He’s even the subject of a documentary, Objects of Desire, the Art of Jerry Ross Barrish, currently in production.
Looking back over his career, Barrish recognizes that SFAI helped instill the qualities necessary for lifelong art practice. “In real life as an artist you have to know how to self-start, you have to do research, you have to solve problems. And the school really said, ‘If you want to be an artist, this is the place to be.’ ”
Visit Jerry’s website: www.jerrybarrish.com