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Turning Trash Into Treasure

IF Leo Sewell is not already a household name where you live, he's bound to become one when he builds his dream sculpture: a life-size tyrannosaurus rex.You might be awed by the dinosaur's gigantic size and even spooked by its realistically fierce teeth, but when describing it for Mom and Dad, you'll probably talk most about the materials its made of. Discarded drainpipes, building blocks, and hockey sticks are just a few of the objects you might identify in the dinosaur, or for that matter, in any Sewell sculpture. For Sewell, junk collecting has always been serious business. Growing up in Annapolis, Md., he passed up baseball games and birthday parties to scavenge at the local Navy dump, a place he says was "just like a gold mine." It didn't take long before junk started piling up. Like most parents, Sewell's parents couldn't stand clutter and they quickly blew the whistle. What made them different, however, was that they demanded more than just a clean room with Leo's junk collection neatly hidden under the bed. As if he was in art class, his parents challenged him to be creative, sending him to his Dad's wood shop to make something with his findings. In the nearly 30 years since then, Sewell's junk art has evolved from being plain and useful - objects such as a tiny table and a watch case, to being wildly decorative - penguins, bulldogs, and teradactyls, to name a few. His work has been shown in some 100 art galleries and museums around the world and is housed in the collections of Nelson Rockefeller and Sylvester Stallone, who, you guessed it, owns both a Rocky and a Rambo sculpture made by Sewell. Despite his success, Sewell seems almost indifferent to being famous. What excites Leo Sewell most, as was evident after just moments of speaking with him, is humor. He chuckles at the mere thought of his latest sculpture. He has hopes that his four-year-old daughter will become a comedian. He credits his success primarily to the fact that everyone likes to laugh. Perhaps because humor speaks to all ages, the appeal of Sewell's work is not limited to grown-ups. In fact, he says, children have always been his best audience. Why do you think kids like your work so much? What I do is very accessible art. Also they like almost anything to be busy and colorful. I think the desire for simplicity comes with age. I know my daughter, Abby, puts on as many necklaces as she can fit around her neck. I think kids like the aesthetic [look] of it and the form of it, and then they take humor to see that I drilled a hole and screwed down GI Joe. Some of them say "You can't do that! You can't screw a hole in an HD train. I mean they're for running around the track!" But most of them ac cept that I've treated it like parts of a model. They're into the fact that I take all these things that are at the bottom of their toy boxes and I make another thing. Then from about the second grade on they understand about ecology, recycling, and about their trash. When they understand it from that standpoint it gives it a little more resonance. I recently read about a "garbage museum" next to a recycling center in San Jose, Calif., that has become a favorite hangout for school groups and Scout troops. Do you think there's a greater effort being made to involve kids in ecological art? Children's Museums like the Please Touch Museum here [in Philadelphia] have ecological programs constantly. I see it in the schools too. When I gave a few talks at schools, we talked about ecology, and the kids said, "The world is going to be ours, so you guys should quit messing it up." They do a lot of junk art too, whether I'm connected or not.Does your 4-year-old daughter, Abby, have an interest in junk picking and assembling? She certainly enjoys it. She went picking with us this weekend. She's not shy about taking junk to school to show the other kids. But, of course, she has my whole studio to pick in. I tell her that if she wants something from it she has to bring something of her own and trade. I'm so glad to establish that early on. I didn't know what to do... when she was between 2 and 3 I tried to explain "putting back" so many times. When you demonstrate your craft for kids, and they are curious about how to construct their own sculptures, how do you instruct them? I lay it out so they can see it happening, and I just see their eyes become wide. I try to meet them at whatever level they're at right then.... I tell them the simplest thing they can do is collage. That's what I do except [they do it] in two dimensions. I've encouraged them to have a simple board and to drill objects in it, sort of like object collage. Another way would be to fasten the objects on to a wooden lamp, a chair, or a broken ladder using hot glue. Sometimes kids like to use wire, twisting it to cinch objects together or make a sequence of them like a necklace. They can hold the object in place until it dries and keep adding like the twigs and carrot in a snowman, or like working with clay. Where do you tell them to look for the junk? The streets, their closets, their friends. When I built an 8-foot fly out of junk with kids at the Children's Museum in Indianapolis, one guy went to a music store and got a nice pile of guitars, a trombone, and a clarinet. We used part of the clarinet for the fly's proboscis [a snout-like organ for gathering food and sensing]. How do you begin your sculptures? I start by doing a careful line drawing. The more perspectives the better - square on the side, front shot, even an overhead drawing is helpful. Then I make something the whole time trying to make it look like everything is junk except for the fasteners. If I were to make a 3-foot-high imperial penguin, the core of it would be part of a rafter from a Victorian house or part of a couch or bureau. On the sides of that I'll screw the handles of hockey sticks vertically for the legs. I might take the arm of a chair and screw it from the central rafter, and the head and beak would be screwed onto that. The feet are cut out of street signs - I don't take them off the poles, I get them out of the trash. I'll use a stop sign for one and maybe a one-way for the other just because I don't want anything to match, and then I'll start to build the bulk of it. I almost always screw a bowling pin on it, just because of the funny reference of bowling pins and penguins - they remind one of the other - and then maybe a F isher Price toy, and so on. As you approach the final shape you start applying more plastica [plastic objects] and metal things - a watch, kitchen utensils.... Just before that I'll take a collection of flat things to make the wings - maybe a credit card and part of a clock face. The green of the beak is often the green Christmas tree stand that's been sold for 20 some years, and the point of the beak is often the hotel from Monopoly. It's additive sculpture that's originally wood because wood is something you can keep adding to easily with screws and nails. It's as if you just keep sticking, like building clay by dribs and drabs. Tell me about the largest sculpture you've ever designed. The biggest piece I've ever made was a 20-foot-long stegosaurus, so that's 20-feet-long and 14-feet-high. That was quite a piece, a really great piece. We had a party when it was done. It was so big that I had somebody in there opening the belly and it hatched a big egg and we had cavemen rip the egg open and there was a little baby one inside. Where do you see your work heading? I'd like to get better at it, and I would like to find more forms. I do have one piece that I hope to make: a life-size tyrannosaurus rex in an outdoor public space, hopefully in a northeast city. I'd build it in the spring, leave it through the summer, and then in the fall I'd come in with a bulldozer with teeth, sort of like a dinosaur, and trash it down again. It would be reduced as an expression of recycling, extinction, dust to dust, urban renewal; mostly it's just a statement sort of thing.... How do your biggest fans feel about this idea? When I tell the kids, oh they love it. "T-rex" is it... . They know dinosaurs so well. The idea of "t-rex" and action and all that... . I don't think they care a whole lot about dust to dust, but I think they could understand without a big leap. Do you have a favorite among your sculptures? (Laughing) I just finished, I'm looking at it now. It's a 15-foot snake made out of irons, just the flat bottom part of irons. I had such a collection of them. It's just so ridiculous and so funny, it makes me smile. Did you ever see "A Chorus Line" when the guy comes out and does a tap dance and sings that song: "I can do that! I can do that!" Just the joy that I can do that, I can do that ... it just amazes me. I knew I could do other forms, but the snake is sort of a new form, so it gets a smile out of me.

You can see a Sewell sculpture at the following museums and galleries this summer: Children's Museum of Memphis, Memphis; Expressway's Children's Museum, Chicago; Indianapolis Children's Museum, Indianapolis; Please Touch Museum, Philadelphia; Circle Gallery, Atlantic City, N.J.; J. Noblett Gallery, Boyes Hot Springs, Calif.; Main Street Gallery, Nantucket, Mass.; Mobilia Gallery, Cambridge, Mass.; Tory Folliard Gallery, Milwaukee.

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'Kidspace' is a place on The Home Forum pages where kids can find stories that will tickle imaginations, entertain with a tall tale, explain how things work, or describe a real-life event. These articles appear twice a month, always on Tuesdays.

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