Jerry Barrish’s Second Act

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As a young boy growing up in New Jersey Jerry Barrish didn’t know anything about art. His home was completely devoid of it; there were no trips to museums. But all that changed when Barrish, now one of the Bay Area’s most admired sculptors, moved with his family to San Francisco.

“At eight years old I was taken to the De Young Museum. The trip changed my life forever. I went back again and again, particularly after I learned to drive.”  Barrish didn’t know it at the time, but the hours he spent in galleries formed the basis of what has been a long and satisfying second act as an artist.  

Barrish started his working life in an endeavor not usually associate with artistic pursuit. “After I got out of the Army at age 22 I had no idea what I was going to do. A friend of my father suggested ‘Why don’t you become a bails bondman?” Barrish knew a bit about the business. His family had friends who were engaged in it. “Sure,” he said.

This was the 1960s, a decade of big time protests and constant arrest of protesters. Barrish took on this clientele. “At first I made very little money bailing these people out, but as it turned out they were represented by young lawyers just beginning their careers, people like Willie Brown and George Moscone, who were to become some of the City’s most prominent attorneys,” Barrish said. “As they succeeded they sent me all kinds of business.” 

Barrish became one of the most successful bail bondsmen in San Francisco’s history. For seven years he kept at it 24 hours day, seven days a week with no vacations. 

As he prospered he began to collect art. One day an unusual artwork, a welded bird, caught his attention. The piece was unlike the objects he’d studied at the DeYoung. Intrigued, Barrish contacted the artist, Charles B. Johnson, and arranged to visit his studio. He kept returning, after a while creating welded works alongside Johnson. 

“We worked together periodically for around a year,” Barrish said. “People ask me if Charles was my mentor, but I have never been mentored. I have taught myself everything in life.”

During this time of experimentation Barrish learned that he only had a certain amount of time to use his educational GI Bill before it’d expire. He applied at the San Francisco Art Institute, and was accepted at the age of 30. His first major was sculpture but, he said, “When I went upstairs to the department, all I found was disorganization and bickering. I changed my major to filmmaking.”   It was in filmmaking that he earned a master’s degree. 

His films from that period – Dan’s Motel, Recent Sorrows and Shuttle Cock – have been shown at festivals around the world, and are included in a retrospective of his work being presented at the Roxie Theatre next month. Recognition of these films led Barrish to win an Artist in Residency fellowship from the prestigious Berlin DAAD, an organization devoted to furthering the education of “highly qualified applicants.”

Barrish spent a year in Berlin, leaving his family to run the office. He decided to become a full-time artist. When he returned to San Francisco, he discovered that the Barrish family was doing a perfectly capable job of running the business. He was now free to do his art.

Barrish moved to Pacifica in the 1980s when “the town and the beach were dirty.” For Barrish this condition had an upside. He started to clean up the plastic and debris littering the sand. One day in 1989, transporting debris back from the beach, he realized he had the materials for an art object. He created his first plastic art:  a Christmas tree. From that point on he was in love with plastic. He formulated a set of self-imposed rules: never cut, bend or paint.  Instead of a welding torch, a glue gun became his tool. 

Over the years these rules have been abandoned. He now cuts, bends and paints over anything. He uses an industrial glue gun, a drill, screws, a handsaw and spray paint. “I recently put a scarf skirt on a woman,” he said, “I would never have done that before.”

When Barrish attended the show, “40 years of California Assemblage,” which featured 160 of the genre’s most important artists, he was surprised to find that he was the only artist using plastic. He was then even surer that the medium was right for him. “I love the beauty in this unusual modern material,” he said.    

Barrish has an impressive body of work in the collections of sixteen important museums around the world.  He’s had hundreds of gallery shows, presently at Studio Gallery in Pacific Heights.  He serves as the volunteer artistic director of Pacifica’s Sanchez Art Center, which features the work of many of the Bay Area’s top artists.  “One of the great pleasures of my life,” he said.

Not all Parrish’s work is in plastic. A piece in progress, commissioned by the successor agency to the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, is a bronze statue for the emerging Hunters Point development. The 16 foot high piece was inspired by a movie Barrish saw in which a World War 1 soldier plays a clarinet as the war ended. “I hope this statue will be a symbol that will encourage an end to violence at Hunters Point,” said Barrish.

Barrish maintains a 2,000 square foot studio in Dogpatch, which houses hundreds of pieces. His work space is perfectly organized, not surprising for a man who was put off by the “disorganization” of The Art Institute’s Sculpture Department.  There are boxes for plastic arms, plastic legs, and other elements that make up Barrish’s art pieces.