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Live Wire 

Elizabeth Berrien at Sewell Gallery Fine Art

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The Wire Lady grips her cat's nose with both hands. Deft twists keep the small object in constant motion as she defines subtle structures around its eyes. Almost imperceptibly, the 22-gauge, dark, annealed steel wire takes shape. While Elizabeth Berrien talks, ears emerge from a fistful of 14-inch strands in her left hand. Glancing down every now and then at the growing creature, Berrien's blackened, calloused fingertips swiftly knit together wispy strands sprouting from the evolving face.

We're in her C-Street Studio in Eureka where Berrien is at ease simultaneously sculpting and chatting about her 47-year career as a wire artist. Animal shapes of every fur and feather swing from the ceiling, drape across cluttered tables and line the floors and walls. Stray strands scatter across the floor like caterpillars wiggling underfoot. Twisting and bending, life blooms all around Berrien. Behind her, a commission from Dubai nears completion, but what she's really excited about is her August show at Sewell Gallery Fine Art.

Titled "A Life of Wire," the retrospective exhibition examines over four decades of innovation and discovery. The self-taught Berrien was virtually alone in her field when she began sculpting wire. Thousands of miles of wire later, she's an international award-winning artist whose works are featured across 39 states and numerous countries. Berrien's show will highlight the sculptures that have captured the attention of architects, editors, museums and collectors. All artists must begin somewhere though, and this show also includes sculptures from Berrien's humble craft-fair origins.

When a frustrated high school art teacher tossed her a roll of wire after numerous failures in other mediums, something clicked. Berrien knew she had found her creative voice, but it would take years of exasperation to learn to control the finicky fibers of steel. She says she'd "get something really pretty happening, like a deer face a few inches across, then let go of it for a minute and the whole thing would unravel." Berrien pushed on, inventing techniques that would form the foundation of her entire body of work.

From unicorns and dragons (hey, it was the '60s) she progressed to fish and other creatures. Another 15 years came bird sculptures, and after about 30, she finally felt ready to build human figures. These days, clients and commissions push Berrien to constantly expand the boundaries of her styles and subjects. "They are getting me to go in directions I wouldn't normally go before," she says.

Indeed, she's just finished a paper for a National Science Foundation research grant exploring intelligent shape-shifting structures. Lead by a physics professor at Washington State University, the four-year project also includes scientists, biochemists, and master origami artist Robert Lang. Berrien's unique expertise in manipulating wire is helping inform future gadgets like microscopic fiber optics for use in Parkinson's patients or elaborate designs for satellites. "I get a monthly stipend just for thinking!" she says, grinning proudly.

So how does Berrien get her wire to do the things it does? "You paint what you see," she says. Following a creature's muscles, fur or other features, she builds lines that mimic her real-life subjects. One length of wire feeds into the next as needed, following the overall shape and structure of the piece as well as the traits that make each critter unique. Throughout her process, Berrien is not only an artist, she's an engineer. Each twist and joint must be crafted correctly in order for the wire to keep her intended shape. Sometimes she leads the wire into a precise curve; other times she's a follower, allowing the strands to direct her.

Berrien points to a giraffe suspended from the ceiling. Fourteen feet tall, it's a masterpiece of craftsmanship and devotion to detail. Caught mid-gallop, twiggy legs tucked and tail swinging, it possesses the life-like energy characteristic to Berrien's work. The giraffe took more than two months to make, dangling from a chain as it gained height to allow the sculptor to swivel it into position and keep working.

Looking at the sculpture also means looking through the sculpture, but Berrien weaves her wires in such a way that the surface is always paramount. Moving just a few inches to the left or right juxtaposes one side against another so that her three-dimensional work seems in constant motion. Layers cross over one another in a tightly controlled moray effect, emphasizing the volume of Berrien's subjects without losing the overall pattern of her weave. In the case of the giraffe, each pentagonal spot on its coat is preserved, effortlessly fusing form and function.

"I used to feel an obligation to say here's an endangered animal, look at it," she says. "Endangered or common, they're all beautiful, even the ugly ones!" Growing up, Berrien fantasized about becoming a zoologist. She's raised and cared for turtles, ferrets, iguanas, snakes and an entire farm full of chickens, horses, cats, dogs and all varieties of feathered creatures. Now her studio is her stable. The wire is her teacher. Whether it's a Clydesdale or a Friesian, "once I've made one in wire, I'll never forget which one it was or what it looked like again."

In Berrien's restless fingers, the black, steel wires of her cat sculpture have twisted continuously for over an hour. What was a nose and eyes upon my arrival is now a complete head and slender neck. Watching her work is at once contagious and mystifying. The modern world couldn't function without the ubiquitous materials she uses. Berrien's gift is seeing a different kind of current running through all of those wires.

Ken Weiderman challenges viewers of Berrien's giraffe to imagine it stuffed into a suitcase for shipping, as it was, only to be fluffed out again for another show.

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Ken Weiderman

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