Even with live elephants performing all over Dallas in honor of the Republican National Convention this week, Oscar Pumpin’s chrome-plated facsimile is certain to be a standout. His 10/5″, 1,000-pound elephant sculpture—now displayed in front of the Dallas Convention Center—is constructed from 70 old car bumpers.
Unveiled at a peanuts-and-champagne reception on Aug. 12, the Junkyard Jumbo was a hit among party regulars who deemed the steel life a worthy, if offbeat, representation of the GOP symbol. “A splendid work of art, which is certainly a tribute to the Republican Party,” pontificated Texas Senator John Tower. “This is a real go-getter,” chimed in Dallas developer Sydney Steiner, who commissioned the work for an undisclosed—but possibly five-figure—price. (After the convention the sculpture will be moved to Dallas’ new Arts District.)
While Pumpin, 48, considers himself a Republican, he does not toe the party line. “If I’d been paid, I would have done a donkey,” he says. Still, though he’s turned out a bumper crop of animal sculptures, including a giraffe with a pink neon light running down its neck—and counts Malcolm Forbes, Vitas Gerulaitis and Tony Curtis as clients—Pumpin found the elephant a gigantic challenge.
Since April he’s worked nonstop, beginning by scouring National Geographic and animal books for ideas. Next he foraged through a junkyard for 1950s Mercury and Buick bumpers. “Elephants don’t really have facial expressions,” he notes. “They just stand there and look strong and impressive. Bumpers from that decade were perfect.” He built from the bottom up, bolting the feet and legs onto a rented flatbed trailer, then welding body parts on piece by piece in his Bethpage, L.I. backyard. He then transported his masterpiece 1,680 miles to Dallas by truck and trailer. When he lost the left tusk in New Jersey and the tail in Pennsylvania, he simply replaced them en route with the bumpers of a Datsun 280Z and a Volkswagen.
A former car salesman who turned a hobby into a vocation 10 years ago, Pumpin found that his first efforts, some “ticky-tacky copper wall art,” sold well at shopping malls. He does not consider his heavy-metal sculptures to be junk. “Bumpers are pretty,” he says. And how many artists can boast that their work has been featured in Popular Mechanics?