Spaceships and dinosaurs – from the junkyard?
For kids: Artist Steve Heller sculpts amazing art out of old tools and junked car parts.
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.
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.
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.
He's always in motion, too. He leaps on and off his giant sculptures, looking for any flaws.
Several years ago, he toppled off the nose cone of his "Roswell or Bust" spaceship. It's a tubby, 11,000-pound contraption made of a cement mixer and various ancient car parts. It stands complete with happy alien astronauts visible through the windows.
His spaceships run from jumbo-size craft like "Roswell" to smaller rockets made from the housings of car headlights.
While some of Mr. Heller's creature sculptures are scary-looking, others are downright goofy. The Wrenchosaurus is painted bright yellow and orange, and it's made from 800 wrenches!
Carpenters use wrenches to tighten bolts, of course, but Mr. Heller welds the tools together to make backbones and other skeletal structures.
The Wrenchosaurus was twice the winner of the Artists' Soapbox Derby held every year in Kingston, N.Y., a town near Boiceville. The dinosaur even blows flames as it rolls downhill, thanks to a propane gas tank lashed to its underbelly. Its eyeballs are made of lug wrenches and interior car lights. Its feet are shovels.
T. Wrench is the biggest beast Mr. Heller has ever built. It's a 4,800-pound Tyrannosaurus rex with an "evil eye" that glares out at the world from its 20-foot height. It's made from snowplow chains, bulldozer sprockets, and links from log skidders. (Log skidders are mechanisms used to drag heavy lumber through the forest.)
T. Wrench took nine months to build, and Mr. Heller needed a heavy-duty construction crane to move it. Last year, it towered over its very own traffic island as part of the Kingston Sculpture Biennial.
Expeditions of the imagination
When he finished T. Wrench, Mr. Heller began working on a new soapbox racer.
As for what he drives in real life: a big, fat 1959 Cadillac that's yellow with pink flames on the sides and front. He calls it the "rocket ship" of its day with fins rivaling those of a great white shark. He rebuilt the car from the ground up. He's even responsible for its flashy paint job. On the console inside the car is a shiny, bullet-shaped object the size of a football, which he identifies as the "flux capacitor." For those who don't know, that's the gizmo that launched a young Marty McFly on his time-travel adventure in the 1985 film "Back to the Future."
One day last summer, Mr. Heller especially resembled Doc Brown, the nutty inventor in that movie whose hair stood on end after lightning struck close by: When Mr. Heller was still hot from welding his creatures and his T-shirt had burn holes in it from the sparks, he ran his fingers through his wild gray hair and laughed. He was relieved to have finished his Tyrannosaurus Wrench and taken it to Kingston on a flatbed truck.
For the moment, T. Wrench still looms dark and menacing over a street in Kingston. Neighbors who live near it there can imagine they have time-traveled backward into the Cretaceous period.
And that's what makes Mr. Heller's artistic talent so out of this world: With it, he's able to transport the human spirit through time on the shoulders of his dinosaurs – or into outer space on his shining spaceships.