THE BIG WON
- Artist Bio
Elizabeth Berrien, godmother of the
contemporary wire sculpture
movement, was born in 1950. All her life, she has had an intuitive
affinity for animals. As a small child she would stretch out on the
lawn for hours, studying the goings-on of ants and other small insects.
She would gently catch honey bees in her bare hands, hold them awhile,
and let them go again. At age five, gazing at the ceiling during nap
time, she visualized a long line looping back on iteslf. Picking up two
pencils and a ball of string, she invented a crude form of knitting to
make a tiny blanket for her pet turtle. The turtle rejected the gift,
but Berrien continues to pioneer new uses for fiber.
|By kindegarten, Elizabeth was an avid
reader. Her scores for spatial relationships and math were "off the
scale;" later she skipped fourth grade. At age thirteen Elizabeth
Berrian was admitted to Mensa, the "genius society", where she had a
memorable meeting with
Buckminster Fuller. As a high school sophomore she came in sixth in a
statewide math competition, against a field of juniors and seniors. Her
love for plane geometry and topology were vital to her later
explorations of wire sculpture.
high school, Elizabeth had difficulty expressing herself creatively.
She could see the
that made animals beautiful, but couldn't translate them on paper.
Decades later, she would learn that she was born left-handed. When her
efforts at drawing and painting ended in frustration, Elizabeth
abandoned all hope of ever expressing herself as an artist.
And then, a miracle. Placed in a sculpture class against her vociferous
objections, Elizabeth came under the influence of teacher Kenneth
Under his astute tutelage, Elizabeth developed a whole new approach to
art - to stop struggling against that which did not work, and start
exploring areas which did work. Mr. Curran trained Elizabeth to train
herself, using a lifelong technique of creative problem-solving (one
good problem, properly solved, should spawn at least ten good new
||Curran made Elizabeth class monitor,
freeing her from fixed class assignments and stipulating that she learn
to use all the equipment (kilns, looms, welding torches, etc). While
her efforts in these areas were more satisfactory than works on paper,
Berrien was still seeking a comfort zone. At last, Curran gave her a
roll of wire, telling her, "Here, kid, take this wire and mess with
it". Using wire as a mobile inkline was comforting - if a line wouldn't
do what she wanted, she could tweak it around til she liked it better.
Berrien still has her first crude wire sculpture, from 1968:
Cat. Her parents hid it for
years so she wouldn't throw it out.
|While Kenneth Curran recommended art
to many of his pupils, Elizabeth Berrien was not among them. In his
words, "You'd have a lousy time, kid. They'd think you were too
obsessive over the wire, and they'd want you to balance it out with all
that other stuff that gave you so much grief. Besides, you're a
non-conformist. You're doing a good job not being influenced by
Alexander Calder, but most college art teachers have a personal mandate
to influence the hell out of their students. Just go out there and have
a life, the wire will take care of itself."
[In the 1980's, Kenneth G. Curran passed away. Elizabeth stayed in
touch after graduation, and is grateful that she had the opportunity to
thank her creative mentor for setting her on the journey of life. In
her dreams, she still visits Curran his classroom and gains new
||Wolves and other Animals
her teens, Elizabeth became involved with the wolf preservation effort
when John Harris, "Wolfman of Hayward," introduced her to his urban
wolf pack. Her favorites were Clem and Jethro, ambassador wolves John
eventually took on tour to school auditoriums around the country.
Because of Clem and Jethro, a new generation of nature advocates came
into existence. Later, Berrien would become a volunteer at the Oakland
||Elizabeth divided her focus between
learning about her animal subjects and learning to control wildly
temperamental wire. She spent hours in the school's sculpture lab,
making animals with wire and torch. When her parents vetoed plans for a
torch at home, she embarked upon several years of problem solving: how
to make wire joins hold firm without heat? Early efforts involved
dipping wobbly wire forms in liquid plastic. The bubble-like shell held
the wire in place, and made pretty ornaments she could give as
||Young Marriage and Motherhood
and motherhood absorbed most of Elizabeth's energies in her twenties.
She spent evenings poring over animal books, making tiny wire animals
to sell at fairs. To her chagrin, customers called her wire animals
"sculptures," and wanted them bare, without the plastic, so they could
see the lines! This meant more hard work, stopping at every
intersection of two lines to somehow loop and twist the joints into
stability. Slowly and gradually, drawing upon past experiments with
weaving, basketry and lace-making, Berrien's initially random loops and
twists evolved into an orderly system of hand-twisted, textile wire
sculpture. She gained a smoother facility, and the once painstaking
sculptures started to evolve more easily.
|The 1970's were a bleak time for
Berrien, when she lived in Oakland, California. Isolated within a
repressive marriage, she didn't handle money or drive a car. In this
time of loneliness, she was befriended by a neighbor who shared her
love for animals - painter Susan
At the Boulet home, Susan would serve up mugs of herbal tea or spicy
Brazilian fish stew. As they chatted, Susan would share her lore of
myth and metaphysics, while Elizabeth shared her knowledge and
enthusiasm for the inner workings of the animal kingdom. Susan's wise
and gentle nature. Their friendship endured til Susan's death in 1997
and Elizabeth believes, beyond.
|Evolution of a Career
her thirties, as a divorced single parent, Berrien supplemented office
income by staying up late twisting wire dragons and unicorns for San
Francisco boutiques and Harvest Festivals.
||When a department store commissioned 3
life-sized Pegasus sculptures for Christmas window displays, they
literally stopped traffic as viewers flooded the Union Square sidewalk
and overflowed into the street. The breakthrough allowed Elizabeth to
walk away from the day job. Her wire animals have supported her ever
since. Elizabeth Berrin's wire sculptures were discovered by Gump's,
and then a steady flow of museum curators offering exhibits.
||Site Specific Public Works
came public works - first a Pegasus landmark for Louisville, Kentucky
airport. When the Pegasus was unveiled, traffic patterns within the
changed as passengers circled the flying horse over and over. Some
became so mesmerized they missed flights - but didn't complain!
Entering a juried art competition at Mendocino Art
Center, she further validated her self-taught art with the first of
numerous blue ribbons and "best of shows."
||Working large, Elizabeth enriched her
with wildlife as Artist in Residence at Marine World/Africa USA, where
she created life-sized giraffes, elephant and other animals while
working directly from life.
||Her encounters with cheetahs were
especially useful toward making an accurate cheetah wire sculpture for
the Los Angeles Zoo. When all the California Condors were gathered in
from the wild, the zoo commissioned Berrien to sit in blinds and study
the massive birds from life, then create a California Condor wire
sculpture with 9 1/2 ft wingspan to soar over the zoo's entry. When
Berrien asked keepers to critique her sculpture, they said it was so
accurate they could tell which condor it was!
||The zoo commissioned a total of six
wire sculptures, funded by Arco and IBM grants and private donors.
on a North Coast Farm
1988, Berrien embarked on her second marriage, which lasted 20 years.
Elizabeth lives on her
ten-acre farmstead on the outskirts of Eureka, on northern California's
rugged redwood coast. She keeps horses and raises poultry, extending
her self-education in animal behavior by studying the dynamics of her
chicken flock. Her horses give her the insight needed to create
breathtakingly accurate equine wire scuptures. The region's wildlife,
including raccoons, foxes, herons, hawks and mountain lions, lend
plenty of artistic inspiration, at the cost of an occasional careless
chicken lost to predators.
||40 Years as a Wire Sculptor - and Still
her first twenty years in wire, most viewers had never seen works by a
wire sculptor besides Alexander Calder, Ruth Asawa or Elizabeth
Berrien. Many people innocently assumed Elizabeth was using pre-meshed
"chicken wire" - where the astonishing truth is that she weaves single
strands, using only her bare hands and a pair of wire cutters. Even
after 40 years as a wire sculptor, Elizabeth demonstrates often -
dispelling those "chicken wire" myths and inspiring a whole new
generation of wire sculptors. In 2004 Elizabeth Berrien founded Wire
Sculpture Internation, a guild whose mission is to gain greater
recognition, respect and validity for this highly diverse medium.
||In 2006, Berrien shipped several to
for the owner of a topiary garden in Belgium. Wire sculptures by
Elizabeth Berrien are especially prized by architects, interior
designers and feng shui consultants for their ability to harmonize and
balance difficult spaces, enhancing rather than dominating the locale.
Her distinctive, immediately recognizeable works are collected
worldwide. You may have seen them at fine stores. Neiman Marcus, The
Nature Company, Gump's, airports, parks, zoos, restaurants or sculpture
gardens - even Disney World has a 13-ft T-Rex by Elizabeth Berrien.
Berrien's life has been full of adventure. She makes a steady but
limited flow of works for a handful of galleries and private
Every year she pushes the envelope further, creating unique and
unforgetable wire sculptures for collectors, museums, and site specific
to the extraordinary requests for biographical information about the
life factors that shaped Elizabeth Berrien as a wire sculptor - in a
class entirely by herself - she has written a draft manuscript of her
memoirs. When it is completed, we will announce its release on this
Class Wire Sculpture
· Elizabeth Berrien (707) 445-4931 · email firstname.lastname@example.org
Content and images
© 1968-2010 Elizabeth Berrien. All rights reserved.
Updated Aug 8, 2010 · this page valid HTML 4.01
THE BIG WON
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