By Ellie Livingston

Photos submitted by SD Art Museum

Who would think that finding a piece of trash along the beach would launch a career in sculpture work? That is exactly what happened to Jerry Barrish. After studying film at the San Francisco Art Institute and after writing and directing three feature length films, Barrish found himself walking along the beaches contemplating his next career move. It was then that he found a piece of trash that had washed up on shore. Instead of seeing what most of us would see, he saw potential.

SOM_Professional Bridesmaid
(Professional Bridesmaid)
Warren's Cat
(Warren’s Cat)

Barrish started small, sculptures small enough to fit on a tabletop. He allowed the found items to speak to him. He rarely changed them, instead he let the items tell him what they were meant to become. During his first decade of work he held himself to a set of self-imposed rules. The items he found while scouring the beaches drove his work. Later he started branching out, he made sculptures inspired by film, art, politics and people.  He also started finding objects from recycling centers.

MB_Essence of Marlene
(Essence of Marlene)

Many of Barrish’s female figures are based on the actress from the 1940’s, like Marlene Dietrich. In one piece, “Essence Of Marlene” (2007), Barrish has Marlene seated backwards on a chair with a cigarette between her fingers. He has created the smoke from the cigarette from a small thin piece of wire that he has bent and manipulated to perfectly depict a skinny smoke trail. In this piece Barrish has explained, “This sculpture was an interesting experiment. I made it twice, first with a face, and then without. With a face, the piece became a portrait. Without the face, it became the essence of Marlene. As you can see, I chose essence over portrait.”

Sweet Marlene by Jerry Barrish
(Sweet Marlene)

Barrish began in filmmaking, where he would make meticulous storyboards; because of this he became an expert in portraying deep emotion in a single gesture. Every one of his human-like sculptures is seeped with emotion. Barrish makes the must mundane of objects become so lifelike you expect them to start talking at any moment. Barrish has always been an observer. As a young boy, he would watch his father interact with rough and tumble men through his line of work. He sold ice cream at a local ball park, and later on in his life he began his own bail bonds business. Throughout his life, Barrish observed. He took note of all kinds of people in all walks of life. His thoughtful eye can be seen throughout his work, from the bending back of a piano player to the expression of a bride, Barrish leaves no details out.

(Dogs Playing Poker)
(Dogs Playing Poker)
SOM_Red Cockatoo detail
(Red Cockatoo)

My personal favorite piece was “Red Cockatoo” (1995). I loved seeing familiar objects throughout his work. In this piece, the bird’s wings are made from long-handled red wide toothed combs and the tail is made from red banana clips, which were all the rage in the 1980’s. The exhibit at the South Dakota Art Museum on the campus of South Dakota State University in Brookings is the kind of show that you need to go to more than once. Every time you see his work you notice something new. I was glad the sculptures were so close to me that way. I could lean in and squint as to really examine what I was looking at.


The tenderness and emotiveness of Barrish’s pieces is remarkable. His work is understandable and relatable, you will leave smiling, and thinking. Which I suspect is just what Barrish wanted.

Cast and Crew: The Sculptures and Film of Jerry Barrish can be seen through February 22, 2015 at the South Dakota Art Museum.

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