When Emily Duffy saw the ad she thought she had found exactly what she
was looking for 20,000 bras.
"Nicolino, the artist who collected used brassieres from all across
the country in the hope of stringing them across the Grand Canyon
whoa! said Park Department feds is offering 20,000 used bras free
to an arts organization or teaching institution," read the ad, which
was tucked in Leah Garchik's Personals, a daily column in The San Francisco
Chronicle that dishes dirt and information about local personalities.
"Nicolino has moved on. However, he feels responsible to the women
who donated bras. . . . It is more difficult than you'd imagine to give
away 20,000 bras."
After reading that ad, Duffy called Nicolino to inquire about taking
the bras off his hands. That is where their stories and their bra balls
Since Duffy answered that ad, the artists have been feuding over the
idea of using bras to build a spherical sculpture made of those bras
who first thought of doing that and who owns the birthrights to the bra
ball concept. She claims he stole it from her. He says he came up with
the idea and spelled it out to her.
Today Nicolinos "Big Giant Bra Ball," is housed in his
Vallejo, California, home. Made of about 20,000 bras, the ball is five
feet tall and weighs 1,400 pounds.
Duffy, an artist who received her bachelors degree in the arts
from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1993, keeps her "BraBall"
in her studio in El Cerrito, California just five miles from Vallejo.
Her bra ball, made of 7,000 bras, is four feet tall and weighs more than
They each are making very different artistic and social statements with
their work. Nicolino says his artwork celebrates female breasts and has
appeared on The Howard Stern Show to describe his work. Meanwhile Duffy
talks to publications like Spotlight Health magazine about how she used
the bras to raise money to support breast cancer awareness.
"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,"
says Duffy, 43, recounting her side of the story.
"Using bras as an art medium something Ive been doing
for several years now is a way of disrupting some of the longstanding
taboos surrounding them. Interweaving stained nursing bras with provocative,
augmentation bras somehow balances the distorted images of womens
bodies," writes Duffy on her Web site, www.braball.com. "Almost
every woman has a bra story to tell."
One of Duffys bra-related art pieces is the "Mammolith,"
a sculpture of a white corset approximately eight feet tall. Another one
of her pieces is the "VAINVAN," a pink minivan she has decorated
with images and words about femininity and societys demands on female
Initially, says Duffy, she only wanted a few hundred of Nicolinos
bras to make a "car bra" for the VAINVAN.
But Nicolino, whose full name is Ron Nicolino, didnt want to part
with just a fraction of his bras; he wanted Duffy to take the entire collection
of 20,000 off his hands.
"I thought of the BraBall during that phone conversation, and proposed
it as what I would do with the bras he was giving away. I asked myself
What would I do with that many bras? An image of the BraBall
formed in my mind."
According to Duffy, the idea for the ball was inspired by toys she had
seen on visits to San Franciscos Chinatown.
"Papier mâchè balls about the size of a baseball, with
shiny, pretty paper around them, and a little toy hidden inside. I envisioned
the BraBall resembling these toys," she explains. "I saw it
having a central core with items relating to breasts and bras inside a
capsule, which was covered first by many layers of plain-colored bras,
and then by bright, colorful ones.
"I told him I would make a big ball of bras, and how amusing I thought
it would be. He said he loved the idea, it was the best proposal hed
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," she says.
Nicolino remembers that phone conversation a bit differently.
"During our initial phone conversation, this individual suggested
a bra ball. I kind of led her there by the hand. I showed her a picture
of the spool," he says, referring to the giant wooden spool he has
wrapped with about 10,000 bras. "And she knew about my Grand Canyon
Nicolino has been collecting bras for about 10 years. But even before
he began collecting bras, he was creating art about female breasts and
"In 1992, I did a show called Tits: Another American Icon,"
says the self-described architect, building contractor, bookkeeper, ass-kicker
and schlepper. "It was humorous social commentary about breast obsession
in the culture. It was all sculpture. "There was a whole wall made
of concrete breasts. Theyre designed to be building blocks, like
the kind used to cover ugly tilt-up buildings," he explains, pointing
to a block of concrete with a pair of life-like female breasts erupting
The concrete block of breasts are propped up on Nicolinos desk
in the empty living room of a Point Richmond house he is remodeling for
the owner. The owner is so taken with Nicolinos sculpture that he
has asked the artist to place a pair of the concrete breasts on the tile
wall of a new bathtub in the master bedroom. The artist lovingly displays
his handiwork in the bathroom, showing off the way he had the plumber
install the tubs faucet just above the breasts. When someone uses
the bathtub, explains Nicolino, water will splash down over the concrete
breasts, keeping them glistening wet.
"Then there were Jell-O molds made of the shape. The mold was on
a platter with springs, so people could wiggle it. There was tons of other
stuff," he says of his breast artwork.
like women of the planet were donating bras to build a bridge to span
this rift, the biggest cleavage on Earth."
"Pretty soon, people were sending bras from all over the place.
To date, maybe 40, 50, 60,000 bras. More than enough to span the Grand
Canyon," he says.
The bras continue to come in to Nicolino. "I just have fun going
to the post office," he says.
A package of bras recently arrived from Japan. "These five bras
are all washed and neatly folded and wrapped in tissue. Really organized.
I think its a cultural thing," he says, reflecting on the package.
For several years, Nicolino kept the bras in boxes and bags around his
Vallejo home. He experimented with different projects, including trying
to weave a tapestry of the Statue of Liberty out of the bras, with the
statue holding a bra in one hand.
Then, in 1994, he had the idea to tie all the bras together and wrap
them around a large wooden spool the kind often found around construction
sites. Nicolino recruited his daughter and some friends and set out for
Golden Gate Park to link the bras together. The project attracted attention
from passersby, who willingly chipped in to help roll the bras on to the
spool, and from the media.
But Nicolino finally grew weary of bra-art. About a year and a half ago,
he began trying to give away his growing collection of bras both
on the spool and in bags.
"I was trying to get some group to say what they were going to do
with it and do something consistent with the politics and history of my
project and do it with some style. Maybe like that spool," he says.
"This big spool inspired the idea of bra ball," he adds.
But Nicolino didnt attempt to build a bra ball at the time. Instead
he sent out a press release to the San Francisco Chronicle, detailing
his intentions for giving away his sizable collection. He sat back and
waited for the responses to come rolling in.
Enter Emily Duffy.
According to Nicolino, "An individual got involved and made a proposal for taking it [the collection]. I asked her to make a written proposal and form a group," he explains.
(Nicolino rarely mentions Duffy by name, referring to her only as an
Duffy followed up with a letter.
"I suggested we might collaborate," she says. "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."
Duffy wrote in her letter to Nicolino:
"I like the concept of playing with the idea. You have gotten so
much public attention for the bra project partly because you are male.
I imagine many people have had trouble understanding why a man would choose
to use bras as a medium (other than to assume perversion of some sort).
Im sure also that many women were self-righteously angered by the
attention you got for it.
"If we were to work on this together it would completely turn that
us and them mentality on its head.... Its just that
youve put so much time and energy into collecting the bras, it would
be a shame for you not to be part of their final use. Not only that, as
you mentioned, the sexualization of apparel also affects men. Ive
been meaning to do a jock strap art piece for years. Now that would get
some press, eh? <grin>."
Nicolino says he was not impressed with what Duffy had to say about her
"The proposal was a failure. It describes something kind of angry,
and so I withdrew the offer for that reason and because a group had not
been formed. Theres too much ego involved with individuals. I wanted
a group to take this thing because I cant afford to do it,"
Two months later, in December 2000, Duffy received a call from Nicolino.
According to Duffy, he had decided not to give her his collection of bras.
Instead, he was going to construct a ball of bras on his own.
Duffy writes on her Web site that she immediately copyrighted her sketches,
notes and a photo of a scale model of the bra ball.
"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."
(Like Nicolino, Duffy rarely mentions her adversary by name, preferring
to call him "the other artist.")
"The only way I could keep the other artist from appropriating my
design, it seemed, was to make a full-sized, permanent BraBall immediately."
But Duffy had only her own ten bras to work with, which could not compete
with the more than 20,000 bras Nicolino had amassed. So in January 2001,
Duffy e-mailed her friends, mostly female artists, explaining what she
was doing and why.
"There are still people responding to my original e-mail, which
is almost a year old," says Duffy. Since sending out that e-mail,
she has received more than 15,000 bras. She plans to use most of them
on the BraBall.
The BraBall resides in Duffys El Cerrito garage-cum-studio. Black
bras, stained with white deodorant semi-circles, link to red velvet bras,
festooned with feathers and lace. Five-hook bras, built for well-endowed
women, connect to training bras sent to Duffy by women from around the
world. The ball, which stands as high as Duffys chest, also has
a peculiar smell the fading, commingling scents of hundreds of
perfumes, deodorants and natural odors of thousands of women.
"There are some very poignant bras on here. You know, daughters
sending mothers bras after theyve died of breast cancer, women
sending their own bras after theyve lost a breast, little girls
training bras," says Duffy.
The ball is like a ball of yarn, she explains, but that yarn is bras
hooked end to end.
The ball is solid bras, except for a "time capsule" of objects
in the center. The capsule, which is made from a childs plastic
cosmetics case Duffy bought at K-Mart, holds documentation of her dispute
with Nicolino, a red glass heart that she broke while going through therapy
about being an incest survivor and about 20 letters from her best friends
"The BraBall is dedicated to my best friend, Jessica Hickey. Weve
been best friends for 42 years, since we were two," says Duffy.
Hickey was diagnosed with breast cancer about six years ago. During her
battle with cancer, her husband would send detailed letters to friends
and family about Jessicas chemotherapy, radiation, medications and
diet to let them know how she was doing. Hickey has now been cancer-free
for almost four years.
Also inside the capsule at the center of the ball is one of Duffys
"I started this project with my own bras. I put one inside the capsule.
Then I took a wad of silicon ironic, isnt? and glued
the straps of one of my other bras to the outside. From there I started
hooking bras together," she says.
"I have about 700 set aside to go on the final outside layer of
the ball either very unusual ones or those that are representational
of many women.
"Theres this one Victorias Secret bra that I think Ive
gotten about 2,000 of. This is like a $30 or $40 bra. I assume theres
something really wrong with that bra that so many women dont want
it. Its satin and has a really wide strap with no elastic. I think
it must just fall off peoples shoulders. It also has a seam that
goes right across the center of the bra and no lining. [The bras] are
very pretty, but if you have sensitive skin, you must walk around all
day itching," says Duffy.
At 48 inches tall and weighing almost 1,000 pounds, the ball is now at
a size where Duffy can no longer work on it alone.
"I worked on it until it got to be about 3,000 bras. I worked on
it mostly by myself," she says. "Early on, when it was smaller,
I was able to use all kinds of bras sports bras or bras that close
in the front and thread them together. Since it has gotten so big, I havent
been able to use anything other than the traditional hook-and-eye closure."
To add bras to the ball, Duffy and several of her friends hook long chains
of bras together, then push the ball around in a circle, stretching the
bra chains across the surface.
That prompted the first "BraBall Roll-On."
In March, Duffy recruited about 100 women to help her push the BraBall
and add bra chains to it. The event, held at a Unitarian church meeting
hall in Kensington, California, just a few miles east of Duffys
home, was a combination fund-raiser and ball-rolling. Attendees were required
to give five bras to the ball or donate $5 to the Susan G. Komen Breast
Cancer Foundation, the non-profit organization started by Komens
sister after she died of breast cancer that is dedicated to eradicating
Duffy contributed roughly 5,000 more bras, that she had stuffed in boxes
and paper grocery sacks, and then dumped onto the floor of the church
auditorium in a circle surrounding the ball. Following an opening blessing
of the ball by another local artist, Duffy asked women to grab a pile
of bras and start hooking.
With most of the women hooking bras together, 2,700 bras were linked
into a single massive chain in only an hour-and-a-half. Wrapping that
chain around the BraBall took another three hours.
The BraBall Roll-On was as much a social event as a work session. Women
talked at the Chocolate Bar a table spread with brownies, cookies,
fudge, chocolates and other candy while others danced to the live
harp music, pushed the bra ball or helped feed the chain of bras onto
"This is great therapy," said ball-pusher and artist Mindy
Brown of Oakland as she and five other women struggled to push the ball
in a circle around the auditorium. "We should do this every weekend."
Many of the volunteers got a chance to push the ball, but not everyone
"I pushed the ball for about three minutes. Then I couldnt
push anymore. My heart was pounding. Its just too heavy," said
Barbara Bennett, 68, from Albany.
Although there were about 20 men present at the Roll-On, they were not
allowed to help string bras together or push the mammoth ball.
"One thing that has evolved along with [the ball] is that it needs
to only be made by womens hands," said Duffy. "My husband
has been an incredible supporter, and he understands that this is something
he cant work on. It also creeps him out a little bit, but he understands.
Its not his business. Its not against men. Its for women,
of women, by women, to women. Thats a beautiful thing, and theres
not enough of that."
At the end of the night, after hours of bra-hooking and ball-pushing,
Duffy declared the Roll-On a wonderful success. More than 500 bras had
been donated to the ball, and approximately 2,700 bras were added to the
BraBall, making a new total of 10,103. The event also raised $800 for
the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation.
This is a far cry from the last bra-adding session Duffy held in her
studio. As she explains, "The last bra adding session took us
four women two hours to add 550 bras. The ball grew 1/4 inch."
Duffy would like to see her BraBall grow to be five feet four inches,
the height of the average American woman.
"One reason the male artist didnt give me his bras was that
he didnt feel I was going to make it big enough. I tried to get
across to him that I didnt think big enough is part
of the problem here. Women have died trying to have bigger breasts. Its
not so dangerous now, but its not normal. Why this obsession with
bigger, bigger, bigger? Its not always better," she says.
"I decided the size had to have meaning. The size had to somehow
reflect the women that had been giving me bras because this would not
be without them. I mean, with my own 10 bras and my friends, the ball
was only about this big," says Duffy, holding her hands a couple
Once the BraBall reaches its full height she hopes to find an "appropriate
and meaningful home for the sculpture where women can visit and interact
Duffy would also like to create a project or memorial from the hundreds
of letters, postcards and pieces of art she has received along with the
packages of bras mailed to her. Some of the letters are humorous; one
woman sent along one of her husbands jock straps in case Duffy ever
decided to switch mediums.
But most women seem to have sent bras out of frustration and anger, often
at the bras themselves.
"There are very few letters in this huge pile of letters Ive
gotten that say, Im sending you my favorite bra. Its
finally dead. Most of them are letters like, You can have
this thing. I spent a fortune on it, and its never fit right."
Other women have contributed bras to the BraBall out of frustration at
Duffys battle with Nicolino over rights to the idea for the ball.
"The letters Ive received from bra donors reflect the variety
of reasons theyve wanted to be a part of the BraBall project. Many
are upset by the story of how this project began; theyre incensed
by the thought of a man appropriating a creative idea from a woman, especially
one about female body image," says Duffy.
A contributor from Illinois writes, "I am thrilled to send you my
most uncomfortable, binding bra! It is my statement of fidelity to the
sisterhood. I had a great time soliciting bras from my co-workers
and from the most conservative to the most liberal, they laughed and expressed
indignation at your situation. Good luck! Were with you!"
Another woman from California writes, "The perfect bra has eluded
me, as demonstrated by the number of bras Im sending you. Your bra
ball will be the perfect resting place for them since my breasts were
Receiving the bras has been a learning experience for Duffy. "There
is a huge variety in bras that are made out there. But I would say 90
percent of these have wire in them. Ninety percent. Thats part of
why the ball is so heavy."
Gathering bras has also convinced her to get rid of her own bras. "Ive
since given up bra shopping. I dont even wear one anymore. This
project has gotten me totally off bras. I wear undershirts.
"All my bras are on here," she says, patting the ball.
Building the BraBall has also shown Duffy its not the light-hearted,
funny sculpture she thought it would be.
"I think this project represents, in addition to women trying to
support me, a tremendous amount of consumer frustration. Its a big
ball of dissatisfaction, angry consumer womens dissatisfaction.
"I had no idea it would have this meaning. Its become a whole
entirely different thing than what I started with, which was just to protect
my creative rights. I had no idea it would go international. I had no
idea so many women would become incensed by the story and want to be a
part of it."
Women who are interested in donating bras are not the only people to
want to be a part of the story. Since the story of the competing bra balls
broke in a follow-up column by Leah Garchik in the San Francisco Chronicle
in January 2001, both Duffy and Nicolino have been deluged with calls
from the media.
In just over a year, the BraBall and the Big Giant Bra Ball have appeared,
together and separately, in more than 70 newspaper articles, television
segments and radio pieces. The battle over the bra balls has even been
the subject of a documentary film.
Duffy says all the media attention is understandable.
"It is a pretty juicy story. A man and a woman fighting over bras,"
she says, her voice dropping in tone and dragging out the syllables in
the word bras. "Its salacious. Its sexy. Its angry.
Its stupid. Its silly. Its funny. The idea of a giant
ball of bras is funny to begin with. That was part of why I liked it."
What has emerged from these media appearances is that while the two bra
balls may look similar, they and their messages are aimed
at very different people.
Duffy and the BraBall stick to interviews with major newspapers, magazines
and radio shows, such as People, USA Today, Ms. Magazine and ABC News.
In almost every interview, Duffy mentions her efforts to raise money for
the Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. She recently cut back on giving interviews
about the ball because of her experience on a morning talk show for a
Colorado radio program.
"They [the two hosts] didnt want to talk about the BraBall
or raising money for breast cancer awareness. They were two young guys
who wanted to make jokes about the BraBall and what I was doing. I was
really devastated by that interview. From now on, its only NPR for
me!" says Duffy.
Nicolino and his Big Giant Bra Ball appeared on Howard Stern last year.
The show featured Nicolino showing off his bra ball, along with two lingerie
models who gave up their bras on air at Sterns behest
to support the cause.
The artists also take a completely different approach to public appearances
and showings of their bra balls. Due to the size of the BraBall, Duffy
has restricted public appearances of the ball to art and breast-cancer
awareness events, such as the Roll-On or V-Day, a special benefit performance
of "The Vagina Monologues" the popular play about womens
experiences involving their vaginas held in San Francisco this
Size has not stopped Nicolino from showing off the Big Giant Bra Ball.
Despite the Big Giant Bra Balls size, which is about 400 pounds
heavier than Duffys BraBall, Nicolino tries to take it out on the
road frequently. He travels in a 1963 pink Cadillac with Barbie dolls
glued along the trunk. The Big Giant Bra Ball is strapped to a trailer
hooked up to the Cadillac.
"You should see it, when were out on the road. It just bounces
along on the trailer. Its a real happy-looking thing."
Nicolino plans to take the bra ball on tour around the California coast
this summer. He already has an appearance lined up.
"I just recruited five waitresses, who are these babes, right?,
to ride in the pink Cadillac to do an event at Reds Recovery Room
(a bar in Cotati, California),"says Nicolino. "Ive been
invited to bring the Big Giant Bra Ball there for some kind of event.
These women know where my project is coming from. Theyre probably
feminists. I consider myself a feminist."
The differences between the bra balls extend from the artists philosophies
and promotional approaches to the way the bra balls are made.
To build the Big Giant Bra Ball, Nicolino, his daughter and a small crew
of people strung chains of bras together. But unlike Duffy, who links
her bras together by connecting the hooks of one to the eyes of another,
Nicolino hooks each bra to itself, then threads another bra through the
"The bras are in circles, like links in chain," he explains.
"The next bra links through it, and so on and so forth. And you have
to stretch them tight around this ball to maintain the sphere. The tension
is like a golf ball, a rubber band ball. If you had a 1,500 pound ball
of rags that had no tension wrapped together, it would just kind of sag.
"Now that its turned into a giant bra ball, I still want to
give the project away. But I want it to stay a bra ball, I want it to
continue to grow. I want it to get a big pink semi instead of a pink Cadillac.
Whoever gets it whether its a group, an institution or a
university has to provide a grand salon for exhibition and provide
access and a bra donation barrel."
Nicolino wants the ball to continue to grow. He hasnt set any fixed
size for the ball.
"I think if youre a woman or a guy who happens to have
a bra and want to donate it for whatever reason and be a part of
the Big Giant Bra Ball, I think thats where the project politics
is. Making art, being art, being a part of the process. And at the same
time, having some fun and making some interesting social commentary. I
dont see why you should have to cut that off. I see it growing forever
Nicolino also envisions the ball traveling across the world, from the
Bay Area to Ireland to Hong Kong.
The East Bay artist has been pleased with the publics response
to the Big Giant Bra Ball. In spring 2001, he says, he was funded by NBC
to drive the bra ball from Vallejo to Los Angeles to be part of a television
"I was driving down the Grapevine [the stretch of Interstate 5 just
north of Los Angeles] in the pink Cadillac with the trailer. The balls
about 5 feet in diameter.
Theres Barbie dolls on the trailer,
and their hair is flying. And they look like a gospel chorus. The bra
straps are flying in the wind. and its exciting," he says.
"And Im traveling down the Grapevine, and a big purple pick-up
truck with a motorcycle in the back and a guy and his girlfriend in it
are creeping up on me. He honks, and, as they get by me, she flashes me,"
he says, laughing.
"She mouths the words, But I have no bra. So people
have fun with it."
Last summer he took the ball out in San Franciscos Gay and Lesbian
Pride Parade. He recruited a few female volunteers to accompany the ball
on its trailer.
"I gave one of them a bullhorn, and they would actively solicit
bra donations from the crowd. At one time, it was a virtual hailstorm
of bras. San Francisco was feeling pretty festive that morning."
But not all of the feedback he gets from the public is favorable.
"Sometimes it [the ball] generates anger. I take most of that as
a compliment. These people are coming into the situation with a bunch
of anger anyway. At least Ive stirred up something in them, and
it drew out some kind of response.
"I got death threats one year," he says. "People have
called me a pervert on the streets on Edmonton, Canada, when I was walking
around collecting bras on a train trip." That train trip, in 1992,
was called "Whistlestopping Across America for Bras Across the Grand
The bulk of the negative stuff, he adds, seems to come in the form of
letters from religious fundamentalists.
"They write that their God is going to get me, like Sodom and Gomorrah.
Its like Im stirring up some stuff in those folks thats
already there. Its just crazy.
"I dont think most people get it," he says. "I dont
think that most people in this country understand what conceptual art
is. What I consider conceptual art is public involvement and attention
Nicolino describes the philosophy behind the ball on his Web site.
"Its about body image in western cultures, 200,000 breast
implants each year, 8,000,000,000 Barbies, little people, the connection
between self-esteem and loss of breast to mastectomy, five year olds with
eating disorders and more. Its about art."
There has been no final resolution to the battle of the bra balls. Due
to a lack of time and money, Duffy has chosen not to pursue a lawsuit,
and the lawyers have retired to their corners.
She is content to continue building her BraBall and raising money to
fight breast cancer.
Nicolino seems delighted to take the Big Giant Bra Ball and the pink
Cadillac out on tour.
And, even at the heart of the battle, each artist seems to have enjoyed
his or her 15 minutes of fame and the wild ride they have taken with their
As Duffy said at the BraBall Roll-On, "I dont have any jokes to tell this evening. I thought this whole bra ball thing was a joke."
Extra: See the multimedia site for The BraBall Battle.