THE BIG WON
Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, 1985 - Elizabeth
berrien's first museum exhibit of wire sculptures. Since then, she's
been invited to exhibit with many other museums and fine art venues.
Berrian Weaves a World of Wildlife in Wire
& Entertainment Magazine, Nov 1985
artists approach their prospective medium - painted, written, composed,
performed - through a first impression (I like that! I want to be like
that!) and then a tortuous process of education and, hopefully,
innovation that might have the artist eventually ennobling the art.
Elizabeth Berrien went through the process, but with one shortcut: she
invented her own medium.
weaves with wire, mostly wildlife, in stunning variety - from aardvarks
to zorillas with the occasional bear (seven subspecies), eagle (five),
gazelle (three) and warthog (fortunately, one) added in for artistic
and alphabetical balance. Her work list of animals is approaching 400,
and she considers it a beginning.
compounds her own challenge by creating art in public: accompanied by
an observant wit, her fingers work strands of wire at parties, talking
with friends, or during day-long stands at Mendocino's This Is Not Art
gallery, where she made an impressive progress on an emerging horse
during a conversation with A & E Magazine.
Elizabeth Berrian at least started as a traditionalist: "when I was
five, I invented knitting". In 1968, she combined her experience with
lace-making techniques, line drawings, and a passion for animals into a
nascent art form: hand weaving with wire. She describes the
breakthrough simply: "I got into wire after many years of seeing
beautiful lines in animals, and not being able to draw worth a damn."
She describes more standard wire sculpture as "too stiff and
unsatisfying," calling her own work "more like three-dimensional line
drawings, entirely a product of self-education".
As she says this, standing in the gallery courtyard, she gives a strong
twist to the neck of what's emerging as a horse. Do her hands get
tired? "well, when I'm back in the Bay Area I practice ju-jitsu a lot,
and I'd like to think that makes this easier."
As with the horse, she starts literally at the beginning, with the
crossing of two or three wires near the forehead, and works right on
down to the tail (or whatever the creature ends with). The detail that
appears on the way is extraordinarily intricate: "I sometimes use as
much as 300 yards of wire in a project... I weave and twist additional
strands onto the initial nucleus and follow the wire as it spreads
outward to encompass the whole creature."
Berrian's research is intensive: Looking t the five-foot horse emerging
in her hands, she says, "The neck is just a tube with variations. Now I
have to crack the books to study the muscles and withers... the whole
process might take a month to six months." She estimates spending as
much time watching and studying wildlife as she does actually working
with wire; and when she visits a new town, the zoo is her first stop.
"At first I did little misshapen things," she says. "but now I study
the real thing. I don't have any real anatomy books, but I have some
300 cross-indexed works and tapes so I can really study
a moose. The main thing is not to wire anything I can't actually see. I
don't make assumptions. And it's fun: Marine World would give me a
staff pass and just turn me loose."
And 1985 has been a big payoff year for this attention to detail.
First, she was artist-in-residence at Marine World: then, this spring,
she was given a prominent one-woman exhibition at the Los Angeles
County Museum of Natural History. And on June 28, her 15-foot-wingspan
Pegasus was unveiled as the centerpiece of Louisville, Kentucky's new
Standiford Field airport. And she was playing to demanding audiences:
"Preparing for Los Angeles, the most hair-raising thing was that
everyone including the janitors knew what each animal looks like in
life. Louisville... remember, this is horse country. I couldn't be
breed specific with the Pegasus, or all the other breeders would have
been up in arms."
While at first glance, Berrian's works might seem scarily delicate,
they turn out to be surprisingly durable. They resonate softly when
touched, then bounce back into shape. One large Pegasus, currently on
hand, has a "lifetime crushproof guarantee... good for the life of the
artist. The buyer will get it folded up, delivered in a Toyota station
wagon, and delivered anywhere in California." To deliver her work for
the Los Angeles exhibit, she just pried open a five-foot elephant and
stuffed it with 40 to 50 smaller pieces.
Berrian's flow of commissions has grown to the point where she's now
fully self-supporting as an artist: "My blood pressure is better, and
I'm in great physical shape". But she doesn't clock the hours: "I could
panic, fudge, avoid the books, and it would still sell. But I'd know
the difference". She adds, "So far, nobody's proposed an animal that I
couldn't wire, and one of my working rules is never
to turn down a preposterous commission. The results of this maxim have
included the infamous Snake/Rat battle, Two-Headed elephants, a
Marsupial Tyrannosaurus, and the currently pending Seven-Foot Rampant
Pig Playing Pan Pipes".
[Berrien recently wrote from Los Angeles, where she's on the trail of
corporate assignments: "I attended a party at a friend's house; we once
collaborated on a centerpiece for some shifty and slinky wire cats for
a Halloween centerpiece; I went in hopes of drumming up some custom
commissions. Rather than march in wearing a happy-face name-tag saying,
the one who did the wire cats! I
knitted up a simple four-inch cat face and wore it as a neckpiece. And
now the owners of Geary's, a very prestigious jewelry store in beverly
Hills, would like to carry my entire alleged line of neckpieces.."]
How do people respond to her working in public? "a lot of people just
ask, 'why are you doing that?' and all I can say is, 'because nobody
Giving the hose another healthy wrench, she adds, "then there was the
quintessical rudeness. When I was at Gump's, closing a large sale, this
kid held up one of my cats and said, 'Hey, mom, look what she wants
$250 for!' And mom reacted the same way. I just told her, "This is a
museum piece, makable by only one person in the next 90 years or so.
But it takes great artistic integrity to own it.' Then I went back to
close the sale."
She continues, "some people are surprised by my range of tools. Some
expect welding or soldering, others think I have a wire-spinner hooked
up to my computer. What I have is cutters.
"And it's fun: I can just say I'm out here twisting slowly in the wind,
or twisting the night away..."
Has anyone else tried to imitate her? "No, but anyone who's into
lacemaking, drawing, spatial relationships, and bridgebuilding is
welcome to give it a runthrough. And if my 14-year-old daughter ever
wants to knuckle down and suffer several years of aggravation, I'll
keep this going as a family treasure."
[Berrian's daughter already plays a major role: "When she was four, I
left her and an adult friend to anchor an exhibit in San Francisco
while I ran for coffee. I came back to find her surrounded by a knot of
people, giving an astonishingly clear and informed lecture on myself
and my sculptures. Since then she's often stepped in as a
secretary/agent/manager/backrubber... she's indispensable to all of
Putting the horse aside to work on a bird (she keeps multiple projects
going to stay fresh), Berrian summarizes her work: "Above all, I'm an
amateur naturalist. Each sculpture is an attempt to capture the
individual essence of the animals by following its natural lines,
choosing the feather, bone, or muscle patterns that best represent it
in terms of spirit and energy. It's a never-ending process of
Class Wire Sculpture
· Elizabeth Berrien (707) 445-4931 · email firstname.lastname@example.org
Content and images
© 1968-2010 Elizabeth Berrien. All rights reserved.
Updated Apr 18, 2010 · this page valid HTML 4.01
THE BIG WON
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