The BraBall:

By Emily Duffy

In October, 2000, I responded to a news item in the San Francisco Chronicle that a male artist was looking for a home for his large bra collection. I have done artwork about female body image and gender issues for years and immediately jumped at the chance to have some of the bras. I called him and we spoke for about an hour. I thought of the BraBall during that phone conversation, and proposed it as what I would do with the bras he was giving away.

Initially, I was only looking for a few hundred bras (to make a "car bra" for my artcar, the VainVan), but when he insisted I would have to take the entire collection (several thousand bras), I asked myself "What would I do with that many bras?" An image of the BraBall (a sculpture resembling a ball of yarn created by hooking bras end to end) formed in my mind.

I told him I would make a big ball of bras, and how amusing I thought it would be. I described the Chinese paper balls I recalled from my childhood, and how a sort of time capsule inside the BraBall would be like the little trinkets you'd find when you unwrapped them. Of course, the items inside the sculpture would relate to body image and breasts. He said he loved the idea, it was the best proposal he'd heard yet. I felt it was important to have materials representing his story included in my sculpture. He offered to give me documentation of the history of the bras to include in the time capsule, and said he could even get me a breast implant.

I immediately followed up the phone call with a formal proposal letter in which I suggested we might collaborate. I had thought it would be novel and refreshing for a female artist and a male artist to collaborate on an art project involving gender issues.

Over the next couple of months, as we met in person and spoke on the phone several more times, he repeatedly told me that he liked my BraBall idea best out of the group of proposals he had received and that he was probably going to give his bra collection to me. He also repeatedly turned down my suggestion that we collaborate. He said he was moving to Mexico and would prefer to be just an advisor.

In December, 2000, my husband and I went to his house to discuss logistics, and to see how many boxes of bras there were. His tone and approach had now grown proprietary, as he began quibbling about how I should proceed with my own idea and adding many new requirements for me to meet. After that meeting, I re-wrote my proposal, detailing how we could transfer the bras, how I could address some of his concerns, and, most important, how we could formalize an agreement between us before proceeding. He phoned me a week later to say that, not only had he decided not to give me the bras, but he was going to make my BraBall himself. He promised to give me "credit" for the idea but, when pressed, couldn't tell me exactly what that would consist of. (Ironically, at the end of that final conversation, he offered me the hundred or so bras I originally wanted to use on my artcar. I passed on the offer.)

I immediately copyrighted my sketches, notes, and a photo of a scale model of the sculpture. I also got a lawyer. My lawyer sent the other artist a cease-and-desist letter. The other artist then got himself a lawyer, who claimed that I cannot hold a copyright on the concept or sketch of a sculpture. The only way I could keep the other artist from appropriating my design, it seemed, was to make a full-sized, permanent BraBall immediately.

In late January, 2001, I sent an email plea for bra donations to all my friends and family. The response has been phenomenal. To date, I've received about 18,000 bras from women all over the world. Many of them are artists and have expressed outrage about this story. As the bras began pouring in, I started to build the BraBall.

The BraBall sculpture is solid bras, except for a "time capsule" in the very center that contains several pertinent items: documentation about my dispute with the other artist, one of my own bras, a scalpel, a replica of the Venus of Willendorf (one of the oldest known art artifacts - a plump, busty, female figure), documentation of my best friend's battle with breast cancer (thank goodness she's winning so far), a breast cancer ribbon pin, and a broken, red glass heart in a box. The last item is from a difficult therapy session I had several years ago, about being an incest survivor.

The BraBall world premiere was held on March 22, 2001, at Pro Arts Gallery in Oakland, California, which had generously let us use the space for the day. A team of us rolled the BraBall up the ramp into a rental truck, drove to the gallery, and rolled it down the ramp and in the door. We placed the BraBall on the floor in the center of the gallery. I brought along 150 bras to add to the sculpture. In addition, people brought another 200 or so that day.

We laid the new bras on the floor, encircling the BraBall. Hooking them end-to-end, we formed one long chain, criss-crossing the gallery. In a festive and funny dance, dozens of volunteers took turns helping hold up the chain of bras, push the ball, and wrap the chain around it. We added over 300 bras in about two hours. In many ways, it resembled an old-fashioned quilting bee. Because everyone there knew the story behind the project, the event also brought to mind the purported bra-burnings of the 1960s.

In June of 2001 (and again in June 2002), I exhibited the BraBall during East Bay Open Studios (an annual San Francisco Bay Area art event from Pro Arts), during which artists open their studios to the public). Hundreds of people visited my studio and over 500 bras were donated each year.

On International Women's Day, March 8, 2002, The BraBall Roll-On was held in Kensington, California. I rented a hall at the Unitarian Universalist Church and invited all the bra donors from the San Francisco Bay Area to help work on the BraBall. Over 300 people showed up, bras in hand, and we rolled them onto the sculpture continuously for four hours. Women of all ages, sizes, economic backgrounds, and ethnicities sat and hooked bras together, chatted at the chocolate buffet, and helped push the 1000-pound BraBall. Several women spontaneously created new words to several songs (Proud Mary and Oh Blah Dee) with references to the BraBall, and then performed them for the group. Participants also donated $800.00 for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation.

In the Summer of 2003, the BraBall project received a grant from the
Puffin Foundation. This generous grant facilitated the final BraBall Roll-On.

More than 7,000 bras were added to the BraBall on August 24, 2003, at the Final BraBall Roll-On in San Francisco. This event was hosted by The San Francisco Women's Building.

In October, 2003, at three consecutive small work parties, the remaining 900 "fancy" bras were added by friends and family, many who have been involved in the project since the very beginning.

On November 9, 2003, my three sisters, my 5-year-old niece, and I added the last five bras to the BraBall. The final count is 18,085 bras. The BraBall stands 5 feet tall and weighs more than 1,800 pounds!

In October of 2005 I donated the BraBall sculpture to the American Visionary Art Museum, located in Baltimore, Maryland, more info about this here. After storing the BraBall for two years, and being waylaid by a benign brain tumor, I have finally completed the strange and wonderful adventure of the BraBall. I have so many amazing and supportive people to thank. You can find a brief list here.

Upcoming events and developments will be posted here.

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BraBall sculpture and Website ©2008 Emily Duffy.