To most people, a worn-out brake shoe is an auto part destined for the scrap heap. But if Benjamin Bullins catches sight of the same part, it may well end up as a component in a sculpture of a dancer, a jazz musician or an abstract assemblage. A trained photographer and a painter as well, Bullins’ main pursuit these days is constructing whimsical figures from found objects—the common detritus of modern living, broken machinery, musical instruments and vintage but discarded artifacts of the industrial age. Though he has tinkered and scavenged for years, his interest in making art from erstwhile castoffs blossomed after Hurricane Katrina as he toured the city on photo assignments.
“It was overwhelming, I wanted to take a picture of everything I saw and I wanted to pick up everything piled out there in the streets,” Bullins says.
Chance inspiration has guided many of Bullins’ creations since he doesn’t necessarily start out with a specific design in mind. Rather, he usually finds a piece that sparks his imagination and builds from there. A particular project might sit idle for months until Bullins happens upon the exact addition that completes it.
“What I like is the discovery of different pieces and how one can really transform a creation,” he says.
He harvests bucket loads of implements during walks by train tracks and on industrial safaris through abandoned warehouses. Bullins’ parents have his projects in mind as they scour yard sales, while a neighbor might leave some arcane implement at his doorstep. Gear salvaged from an old sheet metal fabrication shop, a rusted-out part from an 18-wheeler, driftwood found along the riverbank—all of it ends up as limbs and torsos and faces for his figures. A glass lampshade becomes the hoop skirt on an antebellum belle while the tip of a golf club head fits perfectly as a bassist’s jaunty chin caught in mid-bop.
“It’s the simple things that intrigue me,” says Bullins. [For example,] “When I see an old shoe, I think about the story behind it and the story I can make from it.”
Bullins hopes to win commissions for public sculpture projects in the future. Already, offers have been coming in from unexpected sources. For instance, organizers of a dry-cleaning industry conference meeting in New Orleans this spring have asked Bullins to create a centerpiece sculpture using parts from old dry cleaning machinery.
Bullins’ work is shown at Gallery Nu in Covington and examples are available online at www.thebenjamincollection.com.