Meet Cal’s mysterious wire sculptor

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Pushing through Kroeber Hall’s enormous glass doors with a life-sized human wire sculpture in tow, Isabel Halpern contemplated the next place to display her senior art project.

Over the last month, many students have noticed — and shared on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram — the bold and thought-provoking series of wire sculptures that sit, crouch or lean on benches throughout the UC Berkeley campus. And while Halpern’s identity as an artist was unknown at first to the wider campus — leading the Clog to dub her the “Banksy of Berkeley” — the graduating senior has finally revealed her inspiration for the mysterious sculptures.

“The title of these pieces together is ‘Connected Disconnect’ because while we are all connected to our devices in the same space, we are also disconnected from each other and from the present,” Halpern said. “I’m not saying that computers and phones are bad and that we shouldn’t use them at all (I use my computer every day, its great), I just think that it’s become too much.”

Using chicken wire as a base, Halpern interweaved recycled cords disposed of by Berkeley co-opers. She used the inside as well as the outside of the cords, a process that reveals surprisingly bright colors that are rarely seen. Walking throughout campus, a student can run into Robert, Chip, Gretel, Martha and Derek Derekson. We personally love Chip’s laid-back demeanor.

While some passersby were clearly puzzled by the sculptures, others read her message loud and clear.

“My first thought was wondering who put them there,” said freshman Katrina Hall. “My second thought was that someone had way more artistic talent than me.”

Senior Sarah Falter said she felt they were just representations of students doing everyday activities, such as looking at their iPods and laying around campus.

Each sculpture is positioned to be focusing intently  on Apple products in hand, representative of her message of human disconnect. Halpern explained that her everyday observations of disconnect inspired her sculptures. She points to one memory in particular.

“I was in the Boston Airport and the first thing I saw waiting for my connecting flight to LA was a family sitting in a line waiting for their flight and they were all on their iPads,” she said. “They didn’t even notice me take two pictures of them.”

This concept of lack of interaction and conversation has been the bulk of Halpern’s art influence for this project. In fact, “Connected Disconnect” was born out of this drive to engage people all around the world.

“[The sculpture series] is not applicable to just one place,” she explained. “It could be anywhere, because it is everywhere. It could go to any university campus, any city. It’s not just Berkeley specific.

Moreover, conversation has been the fuel for Helpern’s art. She recalls two encounters that deeply affected her:

“I met Auschwitz Holocaust survivor Judith Simon, who I sat with for a while. I heard her story, took photographs, and then painted a portrait of her in honor of her and her story. I also did a portrait of my aunt, Jorgia Bordofsky, who dropped out of college at age 19 to join the Freedom Riders to go to segregated restaurants in the South and do sit-ins. She was arrested, let me emphasize at age 19, and spent a month in prisons in Jackson, Mississippi. I painted one of my favorite photographs of all time, which is her mug shot,” Halpern recalled.

Her lifelong passion for creating art and her goal to promote greater human interactions have even influenced her time at Cal.

Throughout college, Halpern had taken art classes for her own personal enjoyment, but it wasn’t until her last year at Cal that she considered it for a profession. She switched majors her senior year —from “society and environment” to Art Practice — a radical feat only a Golden Bear could achieve.

“Having the label ‘artist’ is a very new thing for me,” she admits.

Her senior project received growing attention. Though its debut was over two months ago, her wire sculptures still garner campus-wide recognition whenever they sprout up. It was even the subject of what the Clog dubbed the “Art-Napping of 2013.”

“I placed three sculptures on the grass outside of Kroeber on Cal Day for three hours. When I came back, one was gone,” Halpern said. “It was very upsetting.”

With the help of a friend, missing posters — reminiscent of FBI wanted signs — were placed around campus. After about a week of searching, Halpern finally got a call from a student who found the sculpture in the DKE parking lot. It looked disheveled, as most do leaving fraternity property, but Halpern was soon reunited with the missing sculpture.

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“I came to pick her up. (Gretel) had lost her form and was pretty damaged, but I fixed her and she’s back. I’m so thankful,” Halpern said. Gretel opted not to press charges against her alleged kidnapper.

With UC Berkeley conquered, Halpern has big dreams for her sculpture series, adding that she would love to teach others to make them as well to spread the message.

“Ideally, I would like there to be 20 or 30 sculptures in a public space, taking over, ‘occupying’ a space,” Halpern said.

We predict that #OccupyDisconnect will become the newest Twitter trend.

For Halpern, her work aims to relay her passionate message of human connection to a greater audience.

“Art has endless meanings. Art can just be beautiful. Art causes discussion and gives people experiences,” she said. “The importance of art is to connect people through all backgrounds and all sides.”

Contact Alex Mabanta at [email protected]

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