The Philadelphia-based artist has created one-of-a-kind pieces to commemorate people’s pets

By Kathy Ehrich Dowd
October 29, 2009 11:45 AM

It’s often said that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and it seems likely that statement was first uttered with Leo Sewell in mind.

For more than half a century, this Philadelphia-based artist has been creating amazing sculptures entirely out of junk people have simply thrown away. The internationally-recognized junk sculptor/dumpster diver, whose fans include Demi Moore and Sylvester Stallone, is especially adept at crafting animals that look a lot like the real thing…despite the trash.

“You can’t beat nature,” Sewell tells PEOPLE Pets, and explains that more than 50 percent of his sculptures feature domesticated animals. “I do all my dogs and cats life-size, and some smaller animals, like ducks and mice, I’ll do bigger. There’s something sort of humorous and thrilling about taking an innocent animal and making it bigger than life.”

Case in point? A nearly 9-foot penguin he created has a home at the Atlanta airport and a 10-foot duck permanently hangs out in a Portland, Ore., public space. Sewell’s work has also been displayed in galleries and museums across the globe – including institutions like the Shonandai Cultural Center in Japan to Ripley’s Believe It or Not museums in 23 cities worldwide.

One of the most fun aspects of the artist is he can be commissioned to create one-of-a-kind pieces to commemorate a favorite pet or animal. For instance, a woman hired him to create a two-foot replica of his daughter’s horse, and he incorporated some special items she provided him for the sculpture (that were mixed in with the trash, of course). He’s also made a number of dogs and cats on request – and even a giraffe for a family that collects giraffe items.

“I hope my works will be like a time capsule or keepsake that hopefully the grandchildren will fight over,” Sewell says.

Like any dedicated artist, Sewell simply fell into his work. As a boy he grew up near a dump in Annapolis, Md., and became fascinated with what he would discover there. “I just love to find objects and take them apart,” he explains. “My parents said I just can’t take them apart, I have to build something. In college I learned about art and thought, ‘gee, I could do that junk thing and call it art.’ ” And that’s just what he did.

His studio now features more than 100,000 pieces of “junk” carefully categorized into drawers with labels such as “pet ears” or “toes.” To create a sculpture he drills small holes into each piece of junk and fashions them together using screws, nails or other objects. His rule is that he wants each piece of junk within a piece of art to be recognizable.

Sewell is also a pro at creating different dog breeds that look remarkably distinct and recognizable. In other words, it’s quite easy to tell the difference between his Scottish Terrier and his Boxer.

Yet despite his dedication to animal art, Sewell admits he has no pets of his own.

“My wife and I travel a lot – we live kind of a spoiled life,” he admits with a laugh. “But I do admire animals and enjoy working with them.”

For more information on Sewell’s work, visit his Web site

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