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Give me your toys

A scavenger sculptor hunts for the perfect playthings so that Lady Liberty can lift her lamp beside the new Please Touch Museum.

Leo Sewell disassembles toys for use in creating Liberty's arm and torch at the new Please Touch Museum.
Leo Sewell disassembles toys for use in creating Liberty's arm and torch at the new Please Touch Museum.Read more

Nature is convex.

"Look at yourself," Leo Sewell is saying, standing in the middle of his inimitable studio on Pearl Street in Powelton Village, a place where the things you threw out have found eternal life in little drawers and shelves and, for the lucky parts, sculpture. "You have cavities, you don't have planes."

He's not being fresh. He's explaining why, as he attacks the remnants of a helpless plastic toy Pet Parlor with a screwdriver, he is discarding the straight-edged pieces (the rectilinear) but saving the rounded bay windows of Pet Parlor's ornate facade.

Sewell is on the hunt for the right toys to create a 38-foot replica of the Statue of Liberty arm and torch that will be displayed at the Please Touch Museum when it reopens in the fall of 2008 in the renovated Memorial Hall in Fairmount Park.

(The actual Statue of Liberty's arm and torch were displayed near Memorial Hall as part of the 1876 Centennial Exhibition; bet you didn't know that, did you? You could pay 50 cents to walk up the 32-foot installation to the observation tower; proceeds went to fund the pedestal. See for yourself: In any case, the once-beloved Pet Parlor may or may not make the final cut, nothing personal meant to its original owner or plastic poodle inhabitants.

Sewell has already constructed the torch and flame in his studio, using ingredients such as a red-sparkled drum, a kid's snow shovel, an orange water pistol, a plastic plate, a red pail, a kid's hard hat, a red recorder, a Phillies batting helmet and a rocking chair. "It's heavy on red, orange and yellow and reflectivity," he says.

He's got a stack of skateboards stored up for the supports under the torch, and he's socking away convex castaway toys for the arm, which will be a model of what he calls "the holy grail in sculpture": the compound curve.

The railing around the flame he carved out of metal license plates and street signs. And while he's already collected part of the "van-load full" of toys needed for the arm - little tykes' playground equipment, bowls, tins, things with "good structural aspects, good color," he says - the Please Touch Museum will also be soliciting donations of used toys from the public that may be used.

Sewell has been at this for 30 years - inspired, or traumatized by growing up near a navy yard dumping ground in Annapolis, Md. "They'd throw away jet airplanes," he said. As a kid, he took a screwdriver and went to work taking cockpits apart - a true deconstructionist.

You might say he is a Dr. Frankenstein of discarded objects, eagerly breaking down a thing, or rescuing a piece of another thing, to create a new thing, a piece of art. Only occasionally is he thwarted by Chinese-made toys that employ a triangular-headed screw that is nearly impossible to extract. "I do like to understand each object and how it's made," he says. "It's a joy for me every day. I just like to get physically involved with this stuff."

The toy-derived Statue of Liberty arm and torch is a departure from his usual materials of metallic scrap and found objects, and his frequent subjects, people's pets. "This will be the biggest piece that I've done, in arguably the greatest room in Philadelphia," Sewell says.

He gets commissions in which people load a bunch of their junk in a UPS box and ask him to create a sculpture. Part folk art, part sentiment, especially when the artwork is a tribute to a pet, or to someone who has died, as in the case of a man he calls "Doc Decoy," whose son sent materials in his doctor bag.

Sewell is the artist who constructed Artie, the toy-derived lifesize elephant sculpture that is at the Please Touch's present location on 21st Street. He is being paid $92,000 for this job, which will include several months of on-site construction.

He's been working in Philadelphia since 1970. "Junk's good here," he says. "A declining Northeast city is the best place for it." He scours bulk-trash pickup days in various local townships, and has regular sources of scrap metals. He's also constantly "looking in the curb" on his way to the mailbox. Jefferson Hospital unloaded hundreds of tweezers and pincers. His overflowing supply of hemostats is a conversation stopper, for sure.

Some of this is about efficiency, about not wasting. "I don't hoard," he says. "It's like a medium for me. With cereal, I'll use the same bowl. We have one clothes closet this wide. But I do have 100,000 objects sorted."

It got to the point where their daughter groaned when family trips were halted because they'd spotted stuff on the side of the road, said Sewell's wife, Barbara. "We used to stop at piles. She'd say, 'Please don't get out of the car. I'm so embarrassed.' "

In his rowhouse next to his studio, there is a mirror in the shape of Pennsylvania with a border made of pencils (pencil plus vanity equals Pencilvania - get it?). There are old yardsticks instead of wainscoting, a "Playskool Mondrian" wall-hanging made of kids' blocks, and furniture bolstered with old skis.

Sewell's hero is Marcel Duchamp, who also had a thing for found objects, a Dadaist who made art out of anti-art. Many of Sewell's sculptures contain something inside them that will rattle if they are shaken, an homage to Duchamp's celebrated Hidden Noise sculpture, whose rattling ingredient remains unknown to this day.

Sewell's sculptures have been collected by museums and individuals, and have been seen on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. They are in Ripley's Believe It or Not museums in 23 cities. Mainly, he finds his work appreciated outside the established art world in places like the Atlanta airport (six pieces, including a horse and a lifesize seated lady) and the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, devoted to self-taught artists.

Which, actually, Sewell is. Schooled in the dumps and casually discarded items he has found along the way. "The work's about joy," he says. "It's not very profound."

To Donate Toys

Toys of at least a foot and not more than 290 pounds - not plush and, preferably, convex - may be dropped off at the Please Touch Museum and 14 Five Below stores in the area between Saturday and May 25. A complete list is available at