Art vs. money: Bail bondsman chooses plastic over paper

35th SF Jewish Film Festival related stories:

When Jerry Ross Barrish offered to be the first corporate sponsor of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival in 1992, he couldn’t have known that a quarter-century later he would wind up as the subject of one of its films.

The same was true for Janis Plotkin, then director of the festival. When she accepted sponsorship from Barrish Bail Bonds, paving the way for other corporate sponsors to come on board, she had no idea that in 2015 she would produce her first film about the man in charge.

But life is funny like that: Barrish and his unusual life story is told in “Plastic Man: The Artful Life of Jerry Ross Barrish,” directed by San Francisco–based Bill Farley and screening at this summer’s festival.

Jerry Roth Barrish with his creations in “Schwitter’s Cafe” (2008)

“He’s a very interesting and unusual person,” Plotkin said of the 75-year-old resident of Pacifica.

Barrish grew up in a Jewish working-class family in San Francisco, where his father had ties to the Jewish mobsters of the day. He grew up in a house that was devoid of art, he says in the film, and developed his interest on his own. Barrish was dyslexic and went into the bail-bonds business in 1961 simply because someone recommended it as something he could do.

Despite his leftist political leanings, Barrish was not an activist or part of the hippie movement during the 1960s and early ’70s. However, he was the go-to guy for most of the free speech, civil rights and Black Panther activists when they needed someone to bail them out of jail. The company motto: “Don’t perish in jail — call Barrish for bail!”

While his business paid the bills, it didn’t satisfy Barrish’s creative side. He had served in the Army after high school, and he used the GI Bill’s educational benefits to attend the San Francisco Art Institute at age 32, studying sculpture and filmmaking.

He made two films that garnered some critical success, and acted alongside Peter Falk in the Wim Wenders film “Wings of Desire” after a meeting with the German director led to the role. But a third film failed to attract any attention and left Barrish in debt.

He was 50 at the time and turned his attention to a new artistic endeavor. The inspiration was a beach riddled with colorful plastic in front of his Pacifica home, which led to the creative outlet he has pursued for the last 25 years: making art out of discarded plastic.

Barrish’s designs must be seen to be believed. Where most people see garbage, Barrish sees the makings of animals, human beings, musicians or the figures from the painting “American Gothic.” His name is known in the Bay Area art world and beyond, and he was awarded a prestigious public arts commission to create a sculpture for the Hunters Point Shipyard.

While Barrish initially found his raw materials outside his home, now he goes to recycling centers.

Among the collectors of his art is his old friend Janis Plotkin. The 63-year-old resident of Oakland, now a senior programmer at the Mill Valley Film Festival, says she’d always aspired to make a film but was waiting for the right subject to come along. When a German colleague came to visit, Plotkin took her to see Barrish’s studio. “She walked in and said, ‘This is a film,’ ” Plotkin recalled.

The colleague conducted some interviews with Barrish before she returned to Berlin, but she had trouble securing funding since it was an American story. Plotkin picked up the thread after Barrish was awarded the Hunters Point commission in 2013, seeing it as a natural cap to a film about his life.

“We’re telling a story of a man who chose a creative life in midlife, and found success, and that is the story I wanted to tell,” said Plotkin.

While Barrish’s Jewishness is certainly touched upon — at one point he says, “If you’re Jewish, you never expect anything good to happen” — this is not an overtly Jewish film.

But Plotkin thinks in broader terms. “His engagement with the free speech and civil rights movements emanated from a family of working-class Jews that were always union supporters,” she said. “Supporting the activists was in his DNA; it wasn’t even a question.”

The film clearly is Jewish enough for Israel; at the Berlin Film Festival in February, Israel TV bought the rights to broadcast “Plastic Man.” It’s is also being translated into Hebrew and Russian.

Plotkin says she found Barrish’s musings on his Jewish identity funny and insightful, even if they aren’t a huge part of the film.

“He’s a cultural and a proud Jew, and that’s what came through,” she said, adding: “As a former director of the Jewish Film Festival [until 2003], the idea of Jewish identity being the Holocaust, Israel or religion is how it’s presented in the mainstream. But it’s the shades of gray that are much more interesting and are way more reflective of who we are.”

“Plastic Man: The Artful Life of Jerry Ross Barrish,” 4:30 p.m. July 25 at the Castro; 6:15 p.m. July 28 at CinéArts@Palo Alto Square; 4:10 p.m. Aug. 2 at the California in Berkeley. The artist’s work is on display July 23-Aug. 31 at STUDIO Gallery, 1641 Pacific Ave., S.F. www.sfjff.org

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."