It's been said that one person's trash is another person's treasure. Philadelphia artist Leo Sewell, AS '69, '70M, has that concept nailed. As a kid growing up in Annapolis, Md., Sewell often would take a half-mile hike through nearby woods to scavenge at the U.S. Navy dump, where he'd fetch home parts of broken appliances, pieces of PT boats and gyroscopes from airplanes.
"Getting in there was like Christmas. I mean, it was just like a gold mine," Sewell recalls. "But, my parents had this puritan ethic, and my father told me, 'If you're going to be hauling this junk home, you better do something with it!'"
Challenged to be creative, he began spending time in his father's wood shop, placing diverse pieces together. In the 40-plus years since, Sewell's reclaimed art has evolved into wildly decorative, life-sized sculptures of human and animal figures, all assembled from castoffs. Take, for example, "Venus de Junko," a whimsical replica of the famed Louvre Museum masterpiece with a clock for a belly.
Sewell has exhibited at more than 100 art galleries and museums throughout America, as well as in Europe and Japan. Private collectors of his work include Neil Sedaka, George Carlin, Nelson Rockefeller and Demi Moore. Sylvester Stallone owns Sewell's life-sized sculptures of Rocky and Rambo. His prices range from $1,500 for a wastebasket to $25,000 for "Heigh-Ho Silver," a full-sized horse constructed of soldered, stainless steel objects.
It was at UD that he decided to try to become a professional artist, he recalls. "When I entered the field, I thought you either starved or became a world-class artist. Today, I make what I always thought was very good money, and my life is my own. Every day, I want to come down here and work."
Dressed in a flannel shirt, jeans, sneakers and a black beret, Sewell holds court in his expansive, ground-floor studio. Tucked in corners and perched on shelves sit his eye-popping creations. Lining the walls are wooden cabinets with labeled file drawers containing a king's ransom of castoffs-pin-on buttons, costume jewelry, rulers, keys, bottle openers, corncob holders, watches and shoe trees, to name but a few.
Sewell's easy-going manner is well-suited for his best audience-kids. Although his works are exhibited each year at area colleges and high schools, he says he especially connects with elementary-school children. He speaks to young audiences about 10 times a year.
"Kids can leap to this concept pretty quick," he says. "The objects and aesthetics are drawn from my childhood, and, hopefully, my concepts hook right into theirs. They are much more tactile than adults. Usually, they talk about their own pickings and their own attempts at construction, and they understand completely what I'm doing."
In return for his appearances, Sewell offers his own version of supply-side economics. Contacted a week before his arrival, the children are asked to bring in four bushels of junk-plastic, metal or wood. The bounty helps fill his studio drawers, as do Sewell's regular outings with a group of his buddies, the "Dumpster Divers."
"I lay it out so the kids can see it happening, and I just watch their eyes get wide," says Sewell. "I try to meet them at whatever level they're occupying. I encourage them to get a simple board and drill objects into it, sort of like an object collage.
"They also understand the ecology aspect of the art. They've been taught early on about recycling."
He launches each project with a careful line drawing with plenty of perspective. The core of his three-foot imperial penguin is part of a rafter from a Victorian house. Into the sides of that, he screws the handles of hockey sticks vertically for legs. He employs the arm of a chair and screws it to the central rafter where the head and beak are moored. The penguin's feet are sliced out of street signs (he swears he doesn't rachet them off the poles). Sewell fastens on a bowling pin-just for the funny juxaposition of the objects. Then, he starts securing those plastic and metal ornaments that give the piece personality.
"It's additive sculpture that's originally wood because wood easily accepts objects attached with nails and screws," Sewell says. "First, I make the skeleton; then, it's fleshed out with muscle. As I approach the surface, I add the plastic and metallic pieces, objects whose previous life is evident, each with its own story. From a fear of nothingness, I tend to encrust my work with much variety, texture and color."
A number of parents have commissioned Sewell to create sculptures from their children's old toys that they cannot bear to part with. The biggest piece he's ever produced is a 20-foot-long by 14-foot-high Stegosaurus now in a children's museum in Florida.
"My dream project is to build a life-sized Tyrannosaurus rex outdoors in a public space. Build it in the spring, leave it up through the summer and reduce it to rubble at the end of fall-a dust-to-dust recycling expression."