The saga of the Bra Ball

It is a tale about art, commerce, intellectual property, technology and gender. And thousands of bras, of course.

By Amy Benfer
Published April 18, 2001 7:16PM (EDT)

I am at a BART station, waiting for the maker of the Bra Ball to pick me up in the Vain Van. I will know it is the Vain Van because it will be a van covered with bras. I will then accompany the owner of the Vain Van to the post office to send thank-you notes to women who sent bras from Japan and Australia and other, less exotic locales, and to pick up more bras from women in other cities, states and continents.

The driver of the Vain Van is Emily Duffy, an artist who claims to be the inventor of the Bra Ball, an object something like a rubber band ball, except that it is made out of bras hooked end to end and wound around one another. The Bra Ball is big news mostly because it is at the center of a controversy about art, commerce, intellectual property, technology and gender, and the vagaries of trying to be a cutting-edge artist in an age that has too damn many of them.

In October 2000, Nicolino, a male artist who had been collecting bras since 1992 in hopes of someday stringing them across the Grand Canyon, decided it was time to call it quits. He had 20,000 bras and he wanted them to be used for bra art. Nicolino sent a letter to Leah Garchik, the gossip columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, in which he offered to donate his bras to the arts organization or teaching institution that could best convince him that the bras would be put to good use. Duffy, an individual artist, responded. At first, she just asked for 100 or so bras to decorate the Vain Van. Nicolino told her that wasn't possible; he didn't want to split up the collection.

Then Duffy had a idea: Wouldn't it be cool to make a giant Bra Ball? "I'm a very visual person," she says. "It just came to me. I saw it." (According to Nicolino, her exact phrase was "Do you know what a rubber band ball is?" -- to which he replied, "Perfect, Emily, a giant Bra Ball!")

According to Duffy, she first suggested the Bra Ball over the telephone, then followed up her suggestion with a written proposal. Nicolino seemed impressed by the idea. He asked her over to discuss it in person. He embellished the original idea with his own: It should go on tour across the country as the Bra Ball roadshow!

Duffy wasn't so sure that the Bra Ball needed to be put in a roadshow. And Nicolino told her that, frankly, he wasn't so sure that Duffy could execute the Bra Ball roadshow to his satisfaction. How much space did she have in her studio? (Her studio is a two-car garage in a suburban El Cerrito neighborhood -- plenty of space, according to Duffy, but not nearly the amount of space one would need to deal with, literally, 1 ton of bras, according to Nicolino, who offered her a trailer to transport the bras and was even more concerned when she declined his offer.)

In a telephone interview, Nicolino added that he felt Duffy's final proposal differed significantly from the original Bra Ball. She wanted to fill the Bra Ball with a wrapped package like a Chinese box, containing, among other things, a scalpel and a breast implant. Says Nicolino, "I'm starting to not like the negative stuff so much." But he was really unnerved when Duffy suggested limiting the Bra Ball to 3 feet in diameter, and sealing it with silicone. This center -- which Duffy called a "yolk" -- would be moved to exhibit sites, along with boxes of loose bras from Nicolino's collection, and gallery patrons would help to build the Bra Ball. It really galled Nicolino when Duffy suggested that the ball would be dismantled after each show and that bras -- the bras he'd collected from donors over an eight-year period -- would be "retired" as they wore out.

"It was too much of a compromise," says Nicolino.

Finally, over a cellphone cut with static, Duffy says, Nicolino told her he was just going to do the Bra Ball himself. He said he would credit her for the idea. She pressed him to define the word "credit." Would it mean that, at installations, her name would be listed next to his as the designer of the Bra Ball?

Well, no, not really. What Duffy heard Nicolino say is that if anyone asked where he got the idea for a giant Bra Ball, he would say that the idea came from a conversation he had with Emily Duffy.

That was not good enough. Duffy says she felt violated. She felt cheated. She wondered where a male artist got the nerve to believe he could construct a sculpture about female body image when he wasn't living in a female body.

Then Duffy got a lawyer. And she got on the Internet.

The lawyer, from California Lawyers for the Arts, asked for documentation of Duffy and Nicolino's collaboration and Duffy provided sketches of the Bra Ball and her proposal to Nicolino. Duffy's lawyer decided to send the sketches to the federal copyright office -- a place more often used for patents and manuscripts, not sketches of ideas. Nicolino got a lawyer too, one who said that Duffy couldn't possibly copyright a concept.

That's when the race for the Bra Ball began in earnest. Nicolino announced that he would have his Bra Ball ready by March (As it happens, he will unveil his Bra Ball, now about 5 feet tall, at Pier 23 this week.) Duffy decided that it wasn't enough to copyright the idea for the Bra Ball -- she had to make her own Bra Ball, and faster than Nicolino.

Of course, Nicolino already had the bras. ("I don't think he really has 20,000," says Duffy. "It looked more like 5,000 or 6,000 to me -- 10,000 at most.")

This is where the Internet comes in. Duffy sent out a desperate e-mail to 100 or so friends and artists -- mainly those on the art car list that she belongs to -- with the subject heading "Support the Arts." In the e-mail, Duffy outlined her dispute with Nicolino and asked women to send in bras in any "size, shape, color or condition" for her project.

"The only way I can keep him from stealing my design is to make a full-sized, permanent Bra Ball immediately," Duffy wrote. "I can't tell you how violating it feels to have this man steal my idea for an art piece about female body image." She promised to send each woman who sent in five or more bras an original linoleum block print from her collection of Everyday Women's Icons.

That was six weeks ago, and Duffy is, much to her regret, no longer offering prints. She simply can't keep up. In the past six weeks, she has received 2,000 bras from more than 675 women (and one clean, well-laundered jockstrap from a sympathetic husband). She is in possession of bras from Japan, England and Australia, from rural women and city women. Nursing bras, mating bras, well-worn bras, brand-new bras, bras used to hold prostheses after a mastectomy.

"Look at those bras!"

The Vain Van has arrived. Actually, if I weren't looking for the Vain Van, I wouldn't necessarily know it was covered with bras. The bras are black and they look more like scabs, or some weird neoprene protective shield. The driver is a round, middle-aged woman whose dye job -- gray hair with red tips -- is either overdue for a redo or weirdly artsy.

We get less than a block away before the cops nab us. At first Duffy is convinced that it is because the Vain Van is some sort of moving violation. ("Just wait until they see my 'Just Say Roe' T-shirt, she says, almost hopefully, as she pulls over.) But no, as it turns out, we are not being persecuted for making a vehicular political statement. It's all my fault. I was waiting in the bus lane and she stopped there to pick me up.

While the cops peruse the Vain Van's license and registration ("It's art, but it's legal," Duffy assures them), I take the opportunity to survey the interior. The dash is indeed pretty obstructed. It's covered in pink fuzz and littered with what look like the contents of a 4-year-old girl's room -- two pink-gloved mannequin hands, a blue plastic tea set, plastic high-heeled mules, Velcro curlers and two Princess Barbies, one black and one white, each holding a mirror that contains a portrait of her Prince Charming.

"Of course," says Duffy, "the white Barbie came with a white boyfriend and the black Barbie came with a black boyfriend. I swapped them. I mean, the racist nerve! What year is it, anyway?"

When it is completed, Duffy tells me, the back seats of the Vain Van will be "Pepto-Bismol pink," with a Victorian settee strewn with doilies. A My Size Barbie and a soft-sculpture doll of the Venus of Willendorf will be the Vain Van's permanent passengers. ("More women look like the Venus of Willendorf than Barbie," Duffy explains, though the fact that the Venus of Willendorf has legs approximately a third of the length of her torso gives me pause.)

We're in luck. The cops let us off with a reprimand, which is most likely due to me playing dumb. ("Oh, my God! That was a bus lane! I had no idea!")

On to the post office, where bras from the international women's community await us.

At the stoplight, Duffy turns to look at a plain, white minivan that is approximately the same make and model as her own. "Let's see if she gets it," she says. Duffy stares into the other van, driven by what appears to be a suburban mother with bleached hair. "I always like to see the reactions of people who have vans just like mine." The woman keeps her eyes on the road, but a man crossing the street with a grocery cart stuffed with auto parts does a double take when he passes the bra-strewn hood. Duffy is delighted. "The salvage man gets it!"

The staff at the El Cerrito post office is very familiar with Duffy. Each day, she carts off two to six mail crates stuffed with envelopes. "They always make me knock on this fucking door," says Duffy, "and sometimes I have to deal with this dumb guy, who I really hate. But last week, I brought in a camera crew and ever since then, they've been very nice to me."

Today, Duffy has five crates. The woman behind the counter greets her by name, of course. As we are loading the van, Duffy tells me that the woman once snuck her a package of bras that she claimed belonged to a friend. "Women are very protective of their bras," she explains as she pulls onto a long windy road that goes up into the hills. "When I work with these bras, it's very intimate. I am smelling these women's perfume, touching the straps worn down by their bodies. A bra is worn right next to a woman's body. The idea of a man touching women's bras is very creepy to me."

"I mean, [Nicolino] has the right to use bras in his art. But how can he do art about women's body image?" she says. "He doesn't live in a woman's body. How could he know?"

Duffy lives near the top of a hill in deep El Cerrito suburbia. She takes me into the garage and there it is: the Bra Ball.

The Bra Ball looks exactly like one would think it would. The most spectacular thing about it is that it is spectacularly heavy. It is about 3 feet high now, but when it's completed it will be exactly 5-foot-4, which, she explains, is the height of the average American woman. "I am also 5-4," she says, "which means that I am the average American woman. Who knew?"

At the center of Emily Duffy's Bra Ball is a time capsule loaded with symbolic booty. First, there is all the documentation of her dispute with Nicolino. There is also a breast implant, a Venus of Willendorf doll, e-mails she received from a friend's husband during her friend's breast cancer treatment and a scalpel found in her mother-in-law's purse after her death.

"If this thing gets loose," says Duffy, "it will be quite a hazard. It could ruin the neighbor's garage."

The future of the completed Bra Ball is somewhat uncertain. Originally, when she thought she would have Nicolino's collection, Duffy thought she would unveil it on National Women's Day in March. A gallery in Ireland wants it in September. One person suggested that she burn it at Burning Man, but that idea does not appeal to her. "Can you imagine the fumes of the burning rubber?" she asks.

In the meantime, the media and the bras pour in unabated. Nothing else Duffy has done has ever come close to getting her this much attention. She picks up her to-do list: "Shop, pick up bras, BAY TV. This is my life." She has been interviewed by three Bay Area newspapers and by People magazine and USA Today. Radio stations are calling. ("They are mostly shock jocks who want to make fun of me. I don't do those.") Four Bay Area documentary filmmakers are vying for the story of the Bra Ball. She spends at least three hours a day answering e-mails and sending thank-you notes to donors.

To demonstrate, she boots up her home computer to show me her e-mail file. One is a query from a publicist who wants to represent her. "I'm doing my own P.R.," says Duffy. But the next message disturbs her. It seems that an acquaintance claims to have seen a male artist with a giant ball made out of bras on "Ripley's Believe It or Not" about three weeks ago.

"That can't be him," Duffy says with disbelief. "'Ripley's Believe It or Not' called me."

Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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