I would understand, from their viewpoint, because they lived through the depression, that they appreciated a certain aspect of your work which is that you create something out of objects that are just lying around…recreating and using what is already there, you aren’t being wasteful. Do you think that is something they liked about your work?
I think that is well said and the term is “value-added,” to take refuse and to create something that has some value is admirable, especially in their eyes.


What type of formal training did you have? How did you get started?
I never really took studio art. Art wasn’t much available in primary and secondary school. I went to college at the university of Delaware where I thought I would be a chemist; I quickly changed to economics and then thought of being in advertising. Then I stayed and took a masters in art history. I had fallen in love with the study of art. But again, not having done studio- for example, there is a museum in Baltimore called the “Visionary Art Museum,” and one day they called and said,  “This guy wants to give us one of your eight foot Stegosauruses, but we need to know if you have studied art?” I said “No.” They replied, “Good, because that is part of our mission statement, so now we can accept it”


How did you learn to weld? I assume you need to do some welding ?
Yes, the larger outdoor pieces are welded. That came much later in the early 90s. What happened was a good friend developed a career as a welder. He taught me and I got some good equipment and so now I can do that. I still can’t solder, but I can weld.


Tell us a little bit about your creative process? Where do you draw inspiration  from?  What comes first, the idea for a sculpture or are the materials themselves your inspiration?
I work all those ways. I’ve found the most successful way is determined by what you want to make and sometimes is determined by my inventory of objects. Sometimes it works out, but the problem is, for example, I want most of the work to be very colorful. But you will find as you accumulate these objects, you get a lot of brass, gold, and brown colors. At one point, I developed a line of earth and gold-tone figures. Sometimes, you have a collection of fire-pokers or corn-holders that are just so marvelous and aren’t falling into other work, but you have to be careful, in your desire to use these objects, you can make something stupid.


I am always interested in how things are done. Is there some kind of internal structure? Some kind of skeleton you create first out of steel, for instance, and then put a hollow form around it?
The colorful pieces that are human sized and smaller, I do make a skeleton from found objects, again, maybe hockey sticks for the legs of a dog, or a bed frame for larger pieces, maybe the backbone. Then they are fleshed out with mostly larger wooden pieces like croquet balls and mallet heads, wooden knick-knacks. As I approach the surface, I’m starting to use more color, more metal, and more bendable objects to fine-tune that surface. If I do it right, you are able to look into the cracks and see everything. I never do it fully right, and also I probably shouldn’t tell you all of my secrets (laughing.)


No, no you shouldn’t. I’m looking at a stainless duck on your website, I see what you are describing, how you can look into the body.
Well, the larger welded pieces are much more hollow for reasons of weight, structurally they are more like a basket, in the sense that the surface piece is connected to the next surface piece, around and around. There is some substructure, but they are mostly air. The colorful pieces are mostly wood.


As far as fastening these items together you use welding techniques and, I would imagine, riveting ? What other techniques do you use?
The colorful pieces are completely done with fasteners, screws, nails, and they are all stainless steel. If you look closely, you can see the little heads. The outdoor pieces are mostly welded but I use many fasteners there, too. Again, they are stainless steel and often I use blind pop rivets.


On your website there are mostly animals, but then also some clocks, were these specific custom made pieces ?

The University of Delaware is connected to a repository of American antiques, pre 1840, before the Industrial Revolution. If you had to express our country in one piece of furniture, it would be the late 18th century Chippendale Grandfather Clock. So I have used that as a form, I make an 8ft version, a grandmother clock, a grandbaby clock, and I make other clocks and period pieces. I don’t make clockworks, but I do some other furniture. I do some completely abstract works. They may not be on the website.


I didn’t see any abstract work on your website, mostly animals and then the two clocks. Perhaps some wall pieces, and a star and an oak leaf as a wall piece. And then there is “Jesus on the cross.”
That was because I had so many customers who were Jewish, and they were upset because there was a St. Christopher medal in a piece they had. I think they were nervous that their Christian friends might think that they were mocking Christianity. I learned in the 70s to not use these religious medals, and always throw them in a bin. But that bin became too full, and I had an epiphany to use them all in that life-size Jesus Christ on the cross, made entirely out of “Christian” objects.


Are there materials you would not consider working with or is everything fair game?
If it stinks, I try to avoid it. No, I don’t do garbage. I’m not really good enough to do garbage. There is a lady who did the last supper out of lint, entire works out of dung, Piss Christ or whatever.. I just use plastic, metal, and wood- recognizable objects.  I choose them for color, durability, and patina.




I really like the piece “Torch”. It seems to be an indoor sculpture, it looks like the location is at a museum ?
That is a fairly new piece. It is 40 ft tall.  The Children’s Museum of Philadelphia renovated one building that was an original structure, left from 1876. For their Centennial, the museum chose the sculpture as their icon and the piece is now centered in their museum. It is made out of mostly children’s things, donated objects, and some few items from the original building re-incorporated. Now that was a trip.


Do we find this at the Philadelphia Children’s Museum?
Yes, it’s called the “The Please Touch Museum” in Fairmount Park. The room is a grand room with a 70ft dome and under the dome is the location of this piece.


When you work on smaller scale commissions how does that typically work? Do the clients hand you certain materials ?
Sometimes the customer just wants a piece and they can’t figure out which way to go. But, my favorites are when they have an idea, maybe even a very narrow idea, and they have a pile of objects. For example, a gentleman died, and the heirs collected his “objects” and I made his body as a sculpture, “he” is now sitting in their living room.

More often a family keeps a German shepherd for instance, and I make a German shepherd from the family objects. I’d like to think that hopefully the grandchildren will fight over it some day. It is a keepsake and a time capsule of the family at that point.


The gentleman you recreated out of his objects, is that a life-size sculpture sitting in that room?
Yes.  A seated man, life-size.


Where did they place him? In the living room, in front of the TV?
He is in the living room, he doesn’t have the best seat. But he is in the living room. He is without clothes…he is all there.


Wow, that’s amazing. I’ve heard before that people do a lot of things for their relatives and pets, trying to retain the memories the best they can. But having somebody who has passed being remembered in that way is quite extraordinary.
Are you aware of the memory jugs? It’s a southern US phenomenon of the 1920’s and 1930’s. At a person’s death a jug would be taken, covered in tar, and then covered in buttons, parts of glasses, a fob or whatever would be taken and stuck into this tar and that would be their memory jug. They are quite collectable in this country.


I sure learn something new everyday !
So, with all of the many commissions you’ve done over the years, you have also worked with some celebrities, right ?  I’ve heard that Demi Moore and Sylvester Stallone have bought your work?
Demi was given a piece, a teddy bear, Stallone bought several pieces. He also commissioned me to do him as Rocky and as Rambo.


Do you have images of those figures?
I’ve made a lot of work, over 4,000 pieces. I might know where only 400 or 500 are. I may have photographed maybe 1,000 of them. My joy is to make them.


On crafthaus, we are really interested in how things “work”. You’ve already explained how you weld your work. Yet, we all encounter problems with our work, even if we do it over and over again and have certain techniques down pat. What are typical pitfalls you encounter in your work?
Well, I have said that I really wished I could weld brass together better. There are so many issues and I have talked to many people about it. Online I try to find help about that. There are so many wonderful brass objects available, you can get brass objects well over 100 years old. Drilling hard metals is also an issue for me. Really, the hardest is stainless steel. I’ve done a little work with titanium and that is an incredibly hard metal. But, the assembly using fasteners I have down pretty well. Oh, and soldering has been difficult for me. I had a guy that helped me for about 10 years. We made several pieces out of sterling silver and gold objects. But he died, young guy. So I haven’t replaced him yet. So that is an issue.


Speaking about all of these larger works makes me think that you must have a huge studio space?
It is a former commercial sign shop that became available right next door to my house. I bought it, it has 4,000 sq feet. I put up a wall and rented one half to a woodworker. So, I have 2,000 sq feet to myself. It is very organized, over 2000 stashes of objects arranged by material, by scale, or by ultimate use. I work under a skylight, which I think is important. I don’t allow a TV in there, but I do listen to a lot of radio.


What do you listen to?
I listen to different periods of music- 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s. I listen to Howard Stern and financial networks. I listen to a lot of NPR and some CDs of mine.




How high is your studio ceiling ?
The ceiling at the peak is about 13ft. I’ve made a few pieces that could not fit in my studio. I’ve made parts and assembled them on site. For example that torch, I made the flame and most of the fingers and parts of the handle of the torch in the studio, and then did the rest on site.

 
How did you then assemble the torch at the museum? Did you weld it in place? You must have had a crane there!
I did have lifts. But the museum provided a metal armature for me. They had engineers and insurance and they got union steel guys to build the armature, and I took it from there.


How much time do you actually get to spend in your studio?
About 40 hours a week at this point. It was more before. I am probably slowing down some, I’m 64. I used to spend a whole lot of time on the curb.  I used to get up at 6 o’clock and go pick up trash on the curb before I even started to work in the studio. Now, I get more pieces from church rummages, and actually people bring me a lot of stuff now. That part of it has become a lot easier. I have a summerhouse where I try to do most of my welding during the Summer season up there, because I have a situation where I can work outdoors because of the noxious aspects of welding and grinding.



I love what you said about people bringing you stuff. That is wonderful. They give you pieces of metal and plastic and hope that you will be able to use them in one of your sculptures, right?
Absolutely. Sometimes I come home and there is a box or a bag sitting there. I don’t even know who it’s from! I do offer an opportunity for people’s objects to live again.  Now that people try to recycle so much they have added reason to bring it to me. Or even Thursday this week, I’m invited, there is a rather old lady, she is 94, and she is closing her studio and wants me to come and pick from that pile what I might be able to use.


With you spending so much time in your studio and actually producing work, you probably aren’t really online that much or involved in any online activities, is that right?
Yeah, I think that’s right. I do some email and I do like to Google things, but no, partly from my age and partly because I just enjoy doing the work, I don’t spend much time with the screen.


People nowadays take to the internet so much  for many reasons, one reason is that they see this as a way to market themselves since a lot of artists aren’t affiliated with a gallery or an agent.
How do you market yourself? I assume you work with many galleries.
Yeah, I do. Since I’ve been at it so long there is word of mouth and frankly the times I’ve tried to market myself it seemed pathetic.  Like, “hey, hey here I am!” Like a girl trying to get a date or something. I dedicated myself to being a sculptor in 1968 and I did as much as I could, but I did other work until 1986. So that was nearly 20 years of doing jobs, but I don’t really have much to say about marketing. Well, I do give presentations often. I usually just charge junk. So I’m asked to come to present to ladies groups or a high school etc. That generates some buzz and media. I’ve also been in 35 “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not” museums.


Word spreads around eventually.
But, I think there could be a point where people are tired of it, too. There are cycles- “Ok, we’ve had enough of Leo...”




Yeah, that can always happen, especially if you are overexposed. But I don’t think, even though you’ve done it for a long time, that’s true in your case. So, speaking of, what do you think is the appeal of your work? Why do you think people like it so much?
Well, I think it’s a duality of things. First of all, people just love cute animals and the human form, which I do a lot . But then, you can look and see all of these objects. Then there is a little bit of respect for the fact that I pull it off.  I think in America, we more honor something that looks like it’s hard to do. As opposed to just a gestalt. You can have marvelous art that is really very, very simple. Kandinsky comes to mind.


Like Mark Rothko, it looks so simple, but it really isn’t.
Even if it is, it shouldn’t negate it. But again, people have respect for what looks like a lot of work, and maybe even talented work, and then they get something that’s quite recognizable and it’s a conversation piece with the added aspect that it can be their object. All of those things make it appealing. Its not about getting a Vermeer, it’s just because they want it.


So they see the work, and it hits them like a ton of bricks and then they have to have it. Is that how it is?
Well, maybe 20 lbs of bricks. Yeah, it’s joyful. They see it, they like it, they want it, they steal it even!


What do you mean they steal it?
Galleries have told me that people came in, stole my work and left more expensive work untouched. Even in homes. I don’t live in that good of a neighborhood, when they rob my house they just take the TV or the phone, or something. Yeah, I exist as an artist because people want my work. Not because I have a great reputation or that critics have spent much time with me, it’s just because they want the work.


It is something they can relate to.
I think the word is populistic. Like Sylvester Stallone, we really have a lot in common in the sense that the critics don’t have much use for us, partly because we are too easy to understand. But, people like it.  


Have people commented on certain aspects of your work other than on others? Personally, I like humor in craft. Is that something people see in your work ( a humorous aspect) and have they commented on it?

Yes, I could even mention a publication called Humor in Art, the author is Nicholas Roukes. My work makes them smile, and that is really the payoff for me. I go on to try to understand humor. What is humor in terms of evolution, how does humor fit in. I’ve read, talked, and considered that a lot. It’s hard to explain.


You have a lot of public sculpture on view in the United States. Where are these pieces ?
I have three, 10ft pieces at the Atlanta Airport, the busiest airport, by some measure, in the world. That big stainless duck that you mentioned, is in an outside location in Portland, Oregon. That same organization called “Twist,” has a 10ft pink duck in a mall in Seattle. Those Ripley Museums have the greatest numbers of my public sculpture pieces. I have some in hotels. The list isn’t all that long. Most pieces are held privately. Some are in museums, probably 30 second tier museums world wide, like college museums etc.

How do you sell your work, through auctions or galleries?
Majorly through galleries or directly through me. It’s worth mentioning the internet because it cuts out the middle man in a whole lot of deals.


When you talk about prices, lets put a number on this, if you don’t mind. The Triceratops, what would something like that sell for?

That is quite an old piece. I’ll talk about things more recent. The smaller animals, like the cat, duck or pig, retail for about $4500. The boxer and penguin retail for $6400. The life-size welded aluminum horse I think is $28,000. Mostly 4-digit and lower 5-digit numbers.


What I really like about your putting some numbers on your work here publicly, is that when I talk to my members, I sometimes hear that they have a hard time selling their work if the material isn’t thought of as “precious.” For instance, artist work in plastics and paper tell me this, their material costs are fairly low, especially if they work in recycled materials.  These artists put in hours and hours of work, and that is naturally how the price starts adding up. In your case it’s quite similar as the materials are found or given to you for the most part, so they aren’t really expensive. But, people actually pay you for the work that you put in. They recognize the value of your time creating these pieces. Is that correct?
Yes, that is one of the appeals because it really manages to look like it’s a lot of work. And it is.


Where do you draw inspiration from? Do you look at architecture, read books, listen to music? Where do your ideas come from?
That is a question that a lot of people want to know. I mostly just look to nature for forms. I certainly do work that is beyond that in terms of inspiration. I do certainly think about these things a lot. I was at Nike one time, the guy said, “Look, I want you to talk to the design teams and tell them where your ideas come from”. I could say dreams, drugs, and chance. I believe chance is the greatest force, like in evolution. But, you have to have a prepared mind, a skill set to take advantage of that chance. I have a wife who has a very good eye, but she is not really creative. I am creative; I recognize it. To tell you anything beyond that, like where ideas come from, I really can’t.


A lot of artist’s say that they just can’t help themselves. It is just the way that they are knitted together by nature. It’s just something that jumps at them. They see certain natural patterns or forms. Where other people see just a fence, they see rhythm and that jump-starts their minds and then they are in “the zone”.
I think that is fair to say. In an NPR interview, I heard novelists say that the novel wrote itself. Or the songwriters put down a song in not much longer than it takes to perform. Humans really do have great capacity for that.


As far as other artists are concerned, who do you like?
I was quite inspired by the Dadaists and Surrealists, especially Duchamp. As a consumer, I’m more involved with comedians and old movies. Comedians because they make me laugh and old movies because they aren’t ironic. I think we have enough going on already. I’d rather watch a simple love story, I don’t need internal references. I do get a little turned off by art that needs to reference itself. I also go to a fair amount of theater, modern and Shakespeare.


I find that interesting, that as a consumer and a buyer, you are drawn to a completely different art form, that is not as visual as your own.  What then is your favorite part about your work? What do you like best about what you do?
The fact that I can make something. That I can create. I can’t have a baby, and I’m not an architect, and I’m not much of a cook, but I can take a pile of found objects and make something that makes people smile.


Would you describe yourself as a problem solver?
Somewhat. Mostly, what I am is just dedicated, organized, and relentless. Like Edison said, invention is 1% inspiration, and 99% perspiration. That is what I am, tenacious. It doesn’t feel that way because I enjoy it.  People describe me as dedicated and relentless.


What is your least favorite part of your work?
Trying to sell myself. Trying to convince somebody else that I am the goods. I hate that.


Does that still happen to you? You are so well known. Do you still feel that you have to convince people?
Yeah, sometimes. I’ll have a client, and he doesn’t really know exactly what he wants to do or whether he wants to do it. We have discussions and sometimes I think they want me to be dead, retarded, or incarcerated. The idea of outsider art swirls around in my career and I think I am somewhat disappointing to anybody who meets me. The work is better than I am.


You mean you don’t look crazy enough, and you don’t have any wild tattoos, and can eat with a knife and a fork without hurting someone ?
Or that I’m not as brilliant as the work. That I am just a regular guy that isn’t to some degree what they want. There is everything out there.
 

So, if you had the chance to do it all over again, what would you do differently?
I think I would be more bold and less timid. I think I’ve been too careful in terms of interpersonal relationships and taking chances professionally.  I consider myself to be lucky to have made a life out of my passion, but I think I could have been a little more bold about it




Would you in retrospect think that it would have been better had you had more formal education? Do you think that would have helped you?
No, I think I took energy from my own mission and I’m somewhat a loner, I haven’t belonged to anything since Cub Scouts.


Do people attempt to copy your work in technique and expression?
Everything you could imagine. Schools use me for projects and some upper level art students do “ a Leo”. There are a lot of other found object sculptors; I can’t claim any proprietary domain.  I think at this point there isn’t work out there that an observant person would mistake as mine. But, as the ecological sensitiveness has grown, it’s quite natural that lots of people do it. I think Michelangelo would be working with found objects if he was alive today. There is much more available in that sense.


How do you feel once you’ve created something, a buyer comes and you don’t have it anymore? How do you feel about that artwork? Is it gone from your life?
It’s fine. I don’t need to inventory things, I’m happy to be done with it. When our child was 6 months old, I used her as a model and a buyer came over and bought the work. My wife wasn’t very happy, but that is just how I am.


Can you tell me 3 things you genuinely appreciate about other people when you are working with them?
Genuineness, thinness, and humor.

What three things can you not stand?
Pompousness, narrow-mindedness, and being overweight.




A word to young artists starting out: What advice can you give them?
Follow the Nike logo, just do it. You will need 10,000 hours to perfect anything and if you can’t sell it get another job and keep working at it.


What are you currently working on?
Like the 6ft oak leaf I made, I’m currently making a small edition of 18inch ones. I also have to make a twice life-sized cockatiel for a client. I’ve made the perch, done drawings, and I’m waiting for a meeting with that client and maybe some of his objects to incorporate.


Famous last words: What’s your motto?
Taken from the musical South Pacific: “If you don’t have a dream, how are you going to have a dream come true.”


Leo, thank you very much for this interview. It was a great pleasure speaking with you !

crafthausers: Feel free to leave a message here for any additional questions you may have and any kind of comments you wish to share, I will be sure to pass them on. Also, check out Leo’s website :

http://www.leosewell.net/

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