West Philadelphia Artist Turns Junk into Sculptures
by Stephanie Tsao
Got junk? Artist Leo Sewell will gladly take it off your hands. He lives near Drexel University and turns junk into sculptures that sell for $2,000 to $100,000. Twenty-five of Sewell’s sculptures were exhibited through January 27 at The Rosenfeld Gallery in Old City Philadelphia.
Look closely at the spine of a bison sculpture and you realize that it is made from an old tennis racket. The muscular, curved body and horns are shaped from broken jewelry, old toys, and voter pins nailed together. “[Sewell] captures the gestalt of the animal. He makes a bull really look like a bull,” says Richard Rosenfeld, 72, who has owned the Rosenfeld Gallery for 36 years.
Out of the 25 pieces exhibited, many are animals–dogs, cats, ducks, and an elephant. A collage of junk forms the shape of a fish. From afar, the viewer notices an Atlantic salmon, but a closer look reveals a blue metal New Jersey license plate, an old-fashioned wooden nutcracker, a gold pin that reads “Those who care Teach,” a dime-sized red heart, and other paraphernalia. The sculptures become time capsules for vintage leftovers. Sewell built a grandmother clock, selling for $7000, that is made from Lincoln Logs, a vintage toy from the early 1900s.
Though anyone can have junk, Sewell surprisingly has to find, search, and even beg for his materials. “I will go to flea markets. I beg my friends not to forget me. My favorite is just cleaning out a building,” Sewell describes.
Sewell grew up near a dump in Maryland and only took one sculpture class in his lifetime. Surprisingly, a hobby became a forty-year career. He got a bachelor’s degree in Economics and originally intended to be a chemist before getting a master’s in Art History and turning full-time to art. He later sold pieces to actors Sylvestor Stallone and Demi Moore and Ripley’s Entertainment, which owns museums and attractions in ten countries. At 67, he now supports himself through his artwork. “I am no star but I’m not starving,” he says.
“I started before Earth Day started,” he remembers, but his sculptures have deferred tons of trash per year from landfills. He also repurposes plywood and screws to make the ten-pound crates with which he ships the sculptures to buyers.
Some of his artwork captures places or icons in Philadelphia. He has made large replicas of the Statue of Liberty’s torch and the Liberty Bell. In the last two years, Sewell has tried restricted palette, or using junk of only one color for a sculpture. Now, his exhibition has a red apple, a black raven, and a white dog. The white dog, made of all white pieces, is the icon of the White Dog Café, a restaurant located in University City since 1983. “There is something stylized about [Sewell’s] work. His cats and dogs are almost Egyptian in the way they look. The rest of his work is fun and tactile,” says Linda Richter, a retired professor of the University of Pennsylvania. She picks up a duck sculpture and shakes it to hear the pieces inside.
The next time you think about spring clean up, think of the junk man. Contact him through his Web site, and explore creative ways to get of rid of junk, help the environment, and support the artistic community.