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Spaceships and dinosaurs – from the junkyard?

For kids: Artist Steve Heller sculpts amazing art out of old tools and junked car parts.

By E.G. Fulton / February 26, 2008

Mighty dino: Steve Heller stands atop his 20-foot 'T. Wrench' in Kingston, N.Y. In 2007, the Tyrannosaurus was part of the Kingston Sculpture Biennial, a public art show.

E.G. Fulton

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Sparks fly wherever Steve Heller goes. He's a lively welder who sculpts dinosaurs and spaceships out of old car parts, tools, and scrap metal.

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His backyard in Boiceville, N.Y., crawls with velociraptors and other prehistoric monsters, including an 18-foot-long "Chainosaurus."

Some of his creatures move when struck. Some of them spit fire. All of them are startling because they look almost alive, emerging from rusting heaps of metal that other people have discarded.

Looking for the bones and brawn of his creatures, Mr. Heller frequents junkyards and swap meets. He's in search of any object that may send his imagination soaring to distant nebulas – or reeling back through time 65 million years.

His precious found object might be a pickax that resembles a Stegosaurus horn, a Christmas-tree stand that looks like a flying saucer, or thresher blades that might make some fine reptilian legs.

Early art

Mr. Heller has been creating since he was a kid. When he was 12, he used to roam the woods looking for weird pieces of wood.

One afternoon, a stump jumped out at him, all gnarly and riddled with a mold that ran through it like black veins. None of the lumberjacks in the area wanted it, so he made his first piece of furniture. (Today, he has his own furnituremaking business.)

When he was 15, he bought a junked 1931 Model A Ford. He rebuilt the entire car but was too young to drive. So his schoolteacher dad drove the Model A to school every day – even in the snow!

A 1931 Model A is not the picture of comfort or warmth, but both Mr. Heller and his dad were too proud of his achievement to notice.

Mr. Heller's dad was always an inspiration. The two of them often tinkered together. Once, his dad, brother, and he made a copy of a painting out of nothing but thousands of plastic pop-it beads. (Pop-it beads have a hole in one end and a knob at the other, so they can be fitted together to make necklaces or garlands – or art.) The pop-it picture is as big as a doorway and still hangs in Mr. Heller's house.

As a teenager and young adult, Mr. Heller picked up odd jobs wherever he could find them. At different times, he sold homemade candles on the street; he was a chauffeur, a waiter, and a bellboy; and he even farmed chickens and turkeys!

While he was around all that poultry, he studied the movements of the birds. Later, when he was building furniture and sculpting full time, he imitated the birds' motion as a dancer might and then translated that motion into iron and steel.

He produced a flock of rake-headed, thresher-toothed, saw-blade-tailed birds that look as though they could attack any moment.

The creatures don't actually move around, but they are posed as though they're in motion.

He calls his metallic birds the children of the dinosaurs, in keeping with the scientific theory that our real live feathered friends are the great-great-great (and many more "greats") grandchildren of the dinosaurs.

Ordinary to outstanding

Whimsy runs deep in Mr. Heller's personality. He creates things for sale, for show, and for the pure joy of turning a wacky idea into reality.

He has a knack for spotting beauty in objects that others have tossed away. He calls his active imagination "a gift." There's never a morning that he doesn't wake up with a new idea. "Steve doesn't march to a different drummer; he has his own orchestra," says his best friend of 30 years, Martha Frankel.