Late artists sculpture jungle lures buyers, curiosity seekers

Emil “Izzy” Sher was wired for art in a big way. The small, mustachioed artist packed his Berkeley bungalow and grounds with hundreds of sculptures, chairs, benches and menorahs he constructed by incising plate steel, bending pipes and, yes, twisting wires.

He incorporated many of the pieces into a three-story metal “jungle” he built in his backyard, and there it remained, 16 years after his death in 1999. But when his son Zalman Sher moved into the house recently, he disassembled the installation. “For light and sanity,” he said wryly.

Now he is starting the bittersweet task of selling much of the artwork. “I want to keep it all,” he said. “But I can’t live my life and keep all of my dad with me. The idea is to put the art into the hands of people who knew him and like it.”

Zalman Sher in his backyard with some pieces by his late father, the artist Izzy Sher. photo/andrew muchin

In a sale at his home April 18-19, buyers and the curious viewed scores of sculptures, 50 handmade copper chains and strings of clay beads, and dozens of small clay animals and primitive-looking clay masks standing, hanging or lying throughout the paved yard. Zalman described it as “a plethora of sizes and conditions of work, from some stuff that’s rusted beyond recognition, to premium.”At the back fence, stacks of miniature metal tube chairs stood beside a 4-foot-long rocking contraption with four seats. On the back deck, a hammock-shaped bench made from perforated metal rested near an abstract swaying chair.

Tables and shelves displayed elephant figures and primitive-looking human masks, all made of clay. Zalman said his father “would explode his clay figures in the kiln and glue them back together.”

He priced the items from $25 to $500, most for no more than $100, with a few larger pieces open to negotiation.

Buyers seeking Judaica could choose from a 6-foot-tall metal pipe, seven-branch menorah; a twisted-wire nine-branch menorah about 2 feet high; and a sheetmetal wall hanging whose edges formed a Star of David.

The Odessa-born artist, who lived through the Russian Revolution, also created a 5-foot-wide metal frame with abstract shapes hanging from the top and jutting from the bottom. In relief, they seemed to form Hebrew letters, but because of rust, it wasn’t possible to decipher them all.

Izzy Sher “had a compulsion to make things,” said Zalman, an electrical contractor. From 1954-60, Izzy owned the Wire Shop on Bonita Avenue in Berkeley. Besides gathering there with his friends, he “made a lot of mannequins and display items, lampshade frames for shops. He made plant holders and bird cages.

“He had another shop in another derelict building on Berkeley Way for a few years. Finally, he moved back to his shop: a two-car garage in front of the house along Virginia Street.”

Izzy in his later years attended services every morning at Berkeley’s Orthodox Congregation Beth Israel. But he was probably better known as “a very Bohemian guy,” Zalman said. “He and my mom, Edith, had moved up to Berkeley from Big Sur, where they lived near [writer] Henry Miller … A lot of their friends followed them to the Bay Area.” Edith, who had worked as a nude model for painter Willem de Kooning before meeting Izzy, died in 2011.

Neighbor Jonathan Reichek, who was helping with the art sale, said he often noticed Izzy at work. The gregarious artist, upon seeing Reichek and his partner leave for work, would call out, “Good morning, young lovers!”    Yet his father had a darker side that Zalman sees in some of his metal manipulations. Izzy left Russia as a teenager in the 1920s, residing briefly in Mexico before coming to the United States. He served in the Merchant Marine and in 1942, he joined the Army and was awarded a Silver Star and a Purple Heart.

“He told me something one time about Russia,” Zalman said. “He said, ‘It was a beautiful day. You could see the dewdrops glistening on the grass. The big trucks were driving down the street full of dead bodies.’

“He told it to me just like I told it to you — matter of factly. He was 5 or 6, in 1918 or so. Twenty-five years later, he was in the second wave of the Allied invasion on the shores of Tripoli. There had to be a whole lot of tortured madness and steel twisted inside of him.”

Zalman sold more than 50 pieces, from a large $1,200 sculpture to $25 tabletop sculptures, as more than 100 people viewed the art. He promises to hold another sale soon.

He is also seeking a permanent Jewish home for two of his father’s 5-foot-tall metal menorah sculptures that formerly decorated Beth Israel.

Information about Emil “Izzy” Sher’s life and work is at Zalman Sher can be reached at (510) 812-9878 or [email protected]