Renaissance Man. A man who has broad intellectual interests and is accomplished in areas of both the arts and sciences. That is the best description of my friend Bernie Wire. My second title choice was, “Everybody Loves Bernie.” He is quite simply one of the most beloved figures on the local beer scene.
I met Bernie Wire one afternoon at Far Bar while we were both waiting for an Alpine beer event. I overheard the bartender informing Bernie the beers would not be served until 6 pm and Bernie responding that he couldn’t wait that long as he had to pick up his wife at LAX shortly.
I was sitting with Jimmy Smith, my pal and Far Bar’s “Beer Sensei.” Jimmy was the one who had driven to Alpine to pick up kegs since the critically-acclaimed brewery did not distribute to LA. I suggested that Jimmy should go ahead and give Bernie the beers early…and he did. The two of them have become lifelong friends. Well, we all have. And that is what we all love about craft beer. It is about camaraderie. It launches friendships.
But make no mistake about it. In this case, it unleased the force of nature who is Bernie Wire onto the California craft beer scene and he has captured it through his remarkable eye and steady lens.
DRENNON: I know you to be a proud Oklahoman. Tell me about growing up. What were you into? How did it shape you into who you are now?
WIRE: One of the many gifts my father gave me was a solid work ethic. He worked 34 years for the US Postal Service. For many years after hours, my dad also had a janitorial business. I remember the day I finally got old/tall enough to operate the floor machines and remember cleaning office buildings and an automobile dealership. Many weekends I mowed lawns with my dad. Inside his many sacrifices he managed to take us camping and we fished a lot with my dad’s brother Jim and his family.
As a young boy, I was always eager to learn how things worked. I remember taking my fathers broken wristwatch apart just to see how it was built and just to clarify I never did repair it.
From an early age, I was into music and art. I began playing trumpet in fifth grade and played brass instruments through high school. From the ninth grade, I worked in my uncle’s print shop in Yukon. For two years after graduating high school in 1975 I worked as a press operator in Oklahoma City. I started a sign business with my high school friend Newt Wheatley in 1975 and in the same year he got me into rock climbing. I would climb every available weekend for the next six years. In 1977 I decided to go to college and enrolled in the University of Oklahoma. My ambition was to get a degree in microbiology. I quickly got involved in biomedical research in the school of chemical engineering. I decided one semester that an art class would be a nice change to my science studies and quickly rekindled my passion for art. Against the Dean of Chemical Engineering recommendation, I changed my degree to fine art, but I continued to work in the chemical engineering school as a research assistant. I remember calling my parents to tell them of my decision thinking it was not going to be pleasant and much to my surprise they were elated.
In art school, I started by taking drawing classes, silkscreen, ceramic, sculpture, but ended up majoring in metalsmithing as I became fascinated with titanium. It was introduced to me as a metal that could be colored and with little information I proceeded to experiment and develop techniques for coloring titanium. While working in the Engineering machine shop I found a micro spot welder and proceeded to learn how to weld titanium and to explore what other metals could be welded to titanium.
I received a full scholarship from the School of Fine Art at Arizona State University. In my first semester, I made work for a two-person exhibit, taught a design class and took 18 credit hours of study. I pretty much worked and slept. I have fond memories of Hagen Das happy hour in the evening when my friend Hoss Rogers and I would climb the iron grating on the exterior of the math building stairwell. At the top of the ten story climb we had placed a heart sticker, we would tag it and then go for ice-cream then back to the studio.
In the second semester, I decided to forfeit my scholarship and transfer to San Diego State. In between schools I proposed a research project on welding titanium to a welding equipment manufacturer in Monrovia California. I convinced them to give me a temporary job and within three weeks I was offered a full-time position with a two-year commitment. I took it and at the end of two years I told them I was leaving to complete my master’s studies. Then I was offered a 33 percent increase in pay. I stayed for three more years and resigned as Sr. Applications Engineer and started my own company, Wire Works, an independent contractor business. From there I started working for companies like McDonald Douglas, GE Lighting, GE Medical, Special Devises, TRW and more providing support to improve process yields and to develop welding processes. Weeks after resigning I was hired back as a consultant and travelled to five Asian countries in three and a half weeks conducting fundamentals of welding seminars and continued to be on call for esoteric applications for years after. I have worked directly with manufacturers of welding equipment in Japan and the UK. I published four papers on welding at the Symposium on Manufacturing Jewelry Technology and received an Innovative Research Award for welding gold and their Ambassadors Award for ongoing contribution to the jewelry industry. To date I am still called on to provide technical support or prototype and production welding services. Bernie Wire - welder for hire. I can make a weld that puts your pants on fire.
You are an artist in every sense of that phrase. From working with titanium, making jewelry, to drawing, painting, photography and being a musician, you do it all. How did you cultivate so many different talents?
I was the one in high school who started a straw quartet and would not shy away from trying to play any instrument. I was the class photographer. I was a bit of a class clown. I was one of several friends that would get together to draw. And I was one of a group of friends who invented the Oatmeal Sandwich.
I cultivated my different talents by being curious and loved to be creative. This has led me down many paths. My work in titanium began in college when it was introduced as a metal that could be colored and immediately I had to know more. How vivid colors could be produced by varying the thickness of clear titanium dioxide on the metals surface fascinated me. My first pieces of titanium came from a scrapyard in Purcell, Oklahoma. This was not an ordinary scrap yard - there were turbine engines, engine cowlings, ejection seats, helicopter fuselage and much more. In the beginning, I started by making jewelry pieces and would later make furniture and sculpture from the found aerospace parts.
Music was a major part of your life so who were your favorite bands and influences growing up?
I started in preschool playing the trumpet. Some of my early influences were Tower of Power, Chicago, Don Ellis, Maynard Ferguson, Clark Terry, Dizzy Gillespie, Chick Corea, Stanley Jorden, Al Di Meola, Louis Armstrong, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk.
Your super cool wife is Anne Marie Gillen, executive producer of the American classic, Fried Green Tomatoes. How did you meet?
We met at a party of mutual friends Timothy and Lenise in Burbank. I was playing kalimba in the backyard and she sat beside me and commented on the calming sound it made. I would later learn she was under extreme stress in the making of Fried Green Tomatoes. I guess you could say I wooed her with my kalimba and we have been together ever since.
You are a bit of a chef and a gardener, right? What are your favorite dishes to make and tell us about that backyard garden?
I loved botany in college and find a garden is a great place to relax. Sitting in the garden with your morning coffee can be quite wonderful. On the other hand, it’s a lot of work and requires daily attention. It’s to the point where we need a garden sitter and dog sitter when we travel.
My passion for cooking comes from my mother’s side of the family. As a child, I fondly remember summers in Tennessee and my Aunt Marjorie’s cooking. I’ll never forget the day when I discovered desert after breakfast, blackberry cobbler alamode! I tend to cook with whatever is in the kitchen and most times it’s replicated, but not always duplicated. Growing up we had beans and cornbread with fried potatoes once a week and to this day I love me some beans and cornbread. I do enjoy a good Cottage Pie. I tend to cook and enjoy spicy foods and make from time to time stuffed jalapenos and poblanos. I tried commercial jalapeno racks and found they cooked peppers unevenly, so I developed my own rack made from titanium wire. I stuff jalapenos and poblanos with a variety of meats and cheeses and I’ll say they are mighty tasty.
Let’s get to the talent that lands you on the cover of Beer Paper. What prompted you to begin taking photos of “beer people” as your wonderful “I Shoot Beer People” exhibit held at Mohawk Bend a few years ago revealed?
Funny you should ask. About five years ago I was at Far Bar in downtown LA for an IPA flight event, but found out the flight of beers I came for were not going to be offered until later that afternoon and I could not stay as I needed to pick Anne Marie up at the airport. Next thing I know the flight of beers show up in front of me at the bar. I had been talking with this guy earlier, he had inquired why I had come to the event and I told him I came for Kern River or Alpine - I can’t remember. I found out later he worked for the City of Los Angeles, but was also a freelance beer writer for the LA Weekly and he was kind enough to convince them to give me a flight ahead of schedule. That lead to a conversation about the LA Weekly and a discussion about photography. I was just about to end a 3.5 years project where I was documenting an active oil lease and ongoing soil remediation operations. There was a moment in the conversation where I thought I could take pictures of beer events. Maybe it could be a nice little side business, but then I found out LA Weekly did not pay for photo use. So, I decided to just start providing content in the hopes people would see and appreciate the work and eventually find some remuneration for my efforts. Said I would do it for a year, then it became two and now it’s been roughly five years.
I know you have observed that the sense of community in craft beer is something special. In your astute opinion, what makes it so?
I believe the mutual respect brewers have for each other’s commitment to craft beer fosters friendship, collaboration and support for each other breweries. Some breweries start by modest means while others come into it with capital, but the goals are the same, provide fresh and delicious beer and support their community of independent breweries. Craft beer is community.
Where do you see craft beer in ten years?
I’m not qualified to see the future of beer, but I do feel strongly about independent craft breweries and the people dedicated to providing for and supporting their local community.
If you could take a month off and travel anywhere in the world, where would you go?
I would start in Yosemite and explore some of our national parks.
Who and/or what inspires you?
Beauty in nature. Art. Music. Friendship. Kindness. Selflessness. The strength in people to endure hardship you feel you might never be able to.
Between talent and work ethic, which is more important?
It depends on your employer. It’s important to have a good work ethic, but they seem to support each other.
Usually I ask, if you weren’t a brewer, what would you be? In your case, if you weren’t the most viable threat to replace “the most interesting man in the world,” who would you be?
If you had to describe yourself in one word or phrase, what would it be?
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