Elizabeth Berrien · World Class Wire Sculpture and Illustration · (707)445-4931 · GODMOTHER OF WIRE
elizabeth berrien's bbc wire sculpture illustration wins the Clio award 2008.
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Beverly L. Watkins
January 14, 2007

Elizabeth Berrien: Godmother of Wire Sculpture

Elizabeth Berrien was born in Oakland, California, in 1950 (Berrien, Re: A Few Questions). Her father was an officer in the U.S. Navy, and she moved a lot as she was growing up because of her father's job. She is now settled down in Humboldt County, California, with her husband Nick Viesselman (Artist's Biography).

In essays she occasionally publishes in northern California newspapers such as the Eureka, California's Standard-Times and on her own website, World Class Wire Sculpture - Elizabeth Berrien, the artist mentions repeatedly the importance of the environment on her work. She and her husband own an old farmstead, inhabited by animals that Berrien frequently sculpts. Both captive and wild animals are brought to life by Berrien's spools of wire and nimble hands.

As a teenager living in the San Francisco Bay area during the 1960s, Berrien found that the world was full of changes. In an email interview, Berrien stated that in her senior year of high school, the Vietnam War, the American Civil Rights Movement, social activism, and an increasing awareness of the environment were all happening around her (Berrien, Re: A Few Questions).

Berrien shared the historical movements of her generation, breaking free of traditional ideals and concerns. As an adolescent in the 1960s, Berrien became aware of bands such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. The Rock 'n' Roll movement in music and the arts had begun, and Berrien could be found riding a bus on her way to Berkeley, California, where she would buy used books or listen to poets in coffee houses, or riding a bus on her way to San Francisco, California, where she would go to the Fillmore Auditorium to hear Ritchie Havens, the Grateful Dead, or the Doors.

Though nonconforming was becoming popular all around her, Berrien proved to be a true nonconformist by not conforming to everyone else's ideas of nonconformity. She remained her own person by listening to the ideas of others while not completely adopting them (Berrien, Re: A Few Questions). This individualism is also manifested in her art, not only by the wire medium she chooses to work with but also by her original technique of weaving her 3-D wire sculptures.

Berrien is a pioneer in wire sculpting; she has worked for 39 years, adapting and perfecting her unique style of wire-weaving (Artist?s Resume). She discusses her technique on several pages of her website, including "The Technical Process," "Innovative Wire Sculpture Workshop: Part 1," and "Innovative Wire Sculpture Workshop: Part 2." While numerous wire artists use store-manufactured chicken wire, molding it into a desired shape, Berrien does not. She uses individual strands of wire and weaves them together in a flowing pattern, capturing the natural lines and shapes of the subject she is creating. This technique is the reason her style is so successful in portraying a realistic image of her subjects.

Before beginning the long process of weaving a wire sculpture, Berrien often sits down and studies the subject she wants to create. She reviews photographs as well as film clips, and she even studies the subject or close approximations of it in real life. She sculpts a wide range of wild life and mythical animals, ranging from giraffes and mountain goats to house cats and unicorns. However, she does not limit herself to animals; she also sculpts botanical, insect, aquatic, and human subjects.

The list of wire sculptors is short when compared with those who sculpt in other mediums. According to the website Wire Magic, some successful wire sculptors are Alexander Calder and Nathaniel Stitzlien. None of the wire sculptors whose work I have seen, however, share Berrien's unique style. One artist that came very close to Berrien's style is Laura Antebi. She develops her sculptures in much the same way as Berrien does, but Antebi leaves no visible gaps in the pieces she creates. Because she leaves no gaps, some viewers might think that Antebi's works are more difficult to create than Berrien's and that Antebi's technique is a more difficult way of sculpting than Berrien's technique.

But, in fact, neither of these points is true. Because Berrien leaves open spaces in her pieces, viewers may see the wire lines that make up each piece. Thus, in order for the piece to be attractive, the lines of the piece must flow and coincide with the near invisible lines of the subject. The lines must smoothly run along the course of the sculpture, and because of the gaps, the human eye can easily focus on the actual wire, leaving no room for mistakes.

As a contemporary artist, Berrien is part of the post-modern movement in art. Despite working at a time when many art schools exist, she never studied as a student at an art school, and she has not been influenced by traditional means, such as work with other artists or the influence of popular art movements of her time. She has, however, been influenced by a few people and experiences.

One of Berrien's earliest artistic influences was her high school teacher, Kenneth G. Curran. Under Curran's encouragement and guidance, Berrien found her current medium of wire. After trying to create a successful art piece in such commonly used mediums as charcoal, paints, ink, and clay, and then failing to do so, Berrien and her teacher came across wire. Berrien talks about this discovery experience in the "Artist's Statement" section of her website: "My teacher, Ken Curran, kept throwing new materials at me till something clicked. Wire clicked big."

Something else that directly influenced Berrien's art was her love for animals (Artist?s Biography). Even as a young child she would watch small animals and insects, analyzing the way they acted and moved about. Later, in her teenage years, she got involved with a wolf preservation effort led by John Harris, who was nicknamed the Wolfman of Hayward.

This experience with Harris's "urban wolf pack" further developed Berrien's interest in animals and led her to volunteer at the Oakland Zoo, where she could observe all kinds of exotic and native American animals (Artist's Biography) . Now in her fifties, Berrien still watches animals, noting how they move and observing the energy lines that make up the animals she plans to sculpt. In the "Artist's Statement" section on her website, she talks about her love for animals, their major influence in her life, and her observations of them:

"The animals themselves have always been the major element of my life; I've always had an affinity for nature. I have memories of catching bees in my bare hands as a five year old. Nowadays I have daily contact with cats, birds, dogs and horses. My husband Nick and I maintain a flock of laying hens. We make accommodations for the myriads of varmints that find this endeavor attractive; everything from skunks and raccoons to fishers, bears and mountain lions. I'll never stop studying the way animals move, their elusive spark of spirit and nature."

In her Times-Standard article "Variety is Strength on Eclectic North Coast," Berrien also talks about the importance of living in and contributing to a community full of thriving artists. She suggests that being able to work in a community that welcomes artists has been a positive influence on her life and work.

She also expresses her enthusiasm for local art associations and galleries when she says, "When my husband and I moved to Eureka in the 1980s, we were so surprised. Artists were all over the place! [ . . .] If you want the benefits of a healthy art community, you must become active within it" (Berrien, "Variety,"). Berrien notes that the 2000 U. S. Census indicated that Humbold County included one of the highest levels of working artists per population. As that figure indicates, Berrien has found herself a comfortable location where she can work and live.

In 2005 Berrien won the Victor Thomas Jacoby Award, an annual art prize that is worth $3,500. A newspaper article by Wendy Butler from The Eureka Reporter suggested some future influences on the Berrien's work. Butler noted that Berrien "plans to go to Slovakia in Eastern Europe and explore the country's wire-craft tradition" (B1). Slovakians have been creating wire-craft for more than 400 years. Though the Slovakian work does not currently correspond directly with Berrien's art, the sculptor wants to travel to that area "to learn more about what differences there are [between their sculpturing techniques and subjects]."

Berrien also stresses the importance of documenting information about and the diversity of wire sculptors in all countries "as a way of inspiring more activity."

As of October 2006, Berrien's own website indicates that she has removed all prices from her online gallery because of the increasing demand for her pieces. Although praised as "the godmother of wire sculpture," she lives no fairy tale. Berrien has become so overwhelmed with the increasing number of commissions from interested buyers that she cannot produce sculptures fast enough to sate the desire for her work. Now people have to express an interest and discuss specific individual pricing with her. According to the Equine Art Guild website, her pieces can range anywhere from $300 to $20,000.

Elizabeth Berrien is a master of her medium, creating fluid, life-like sculptures of both domesticated and wild animals and plants as well as mythical creatures and aquatic life. Her work is majestic and inspirational to the viewer. Her pieces seem to capture the subject?s spirit and character, displaying both in expressive under tones.

Her works are lace-like and may seem fragile at first glance, but they are surprisingly sturdy and durable because of Berrien's careful attention to structure within the piece. Her works speak of a delicate creator and demand awe from viewers. There is no question that this artist's passion for her work influences viewers' reactions.

Berrien explains the emotion that goes into her pieces in the "Artist Statement" section of her website: "When I look back across the curve of time, I see a line of progress and discovery, trial and error. When I see a sculpture I made, I remember my feelings about the creature in question. I remember what was going on emotionally in my life while I twisted those wires. I hear again the music that was playing, or phrases from whatever nick (sic) was reading to me while I bent and twisted the wires."

Works Cited World Class Wire Sculpture - Elizabeth Berrien. Ed. Elizabeth Berrien. 17 Mar. 2005.

11 January 2007 "About the Artist.".

"Artist Elizabeth Berrien." Equine Art Guild.. 11 January 2007

"Artist's Biography." World Class Wire Sculpture - Elizabeth Berrien. Ed. Elizabeth Berrien.

17 Mar. 2005. 11 January 2007

"Artist's Resume." World Class Wire Sculpture - Elizabeth Berrien. Ed. Elizabeth Berrien. 17 Mar. 2005.

11 January 2007 Berrien, Elizabeth. "Re: A Few Question." E-mail to Beverly Watkins. 14 January 2007.

---. "Variety is Strength on Eclectic North Coast." Times-Standard. 17 Jan. 2007: C1. Butler, Wendy. "Berrien's art is 'wired up' with NCCT-Jacoby grant." The Eureka Reporter. 13

Jan. 2005: B1. "How To Buy." World Class Wire Sculpture - Elizabeth Berrien. Ed. Elizabeth Berrien.

17 Mar. 2005. 11 January 2007 "Innovative Wire Sculpture Workshop: Part 1." World Class Wire Sculpture - Elizabeth Berrien. Ed. Elizabeth Berrien. 17 Mar. 2005. 11 January 2007 .

"Innovative Wire Sculpture Workshop: Part 2." World Class Wire Sculpture - Elizabeth Berrien. Ed. Elizabeth Berrien. 17 Mar. 2005. 11 January 2007 .

"The Technical Process." World Class Wire Sculpture - Elizabeth Berrien. Ed. Elizabeth Berrien. 17 Mar. 2005. 11 January 2007 .

Wire Magic. Ed. Allen McDermott. 2 Aug. 2005. 8 January 2007
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Content and images © 1968-2010 Elizabeth Berrien.  All rights reserved. · Updated Mar 1, 2010 · this page valid HTML 4.01

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