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  • Writer's pictureAlex Kuhn

Leo Sewell - Home Of The American Craftsman

What society throws out, Leo Sewell rescues and crafts into sculpture. If he has 100,000 little parts of things stored away in his place it wouldn't surprise me in the least. Plastics of all kinds, metal scraps, wooden scraps, every conceivable piece of junk ever thrown out--these are the foundations of Leo's sculpture. He was featured in Ripley's "Believe It or Not" column, and his work is in the Ripley museums. Leo has also used all kinds of things to make much of his household furniture. Leo lives in Philadelphia, and says he settled there because it is "a great place for junk." Clearly this is not what every American is looking for in their hometown. In 1978 he bought a three-story brick carriage house with a gambrel roof and a backyard and fixed it up. It is about a century old and sits on a narrow street, almost an alleyway. Later he acquired an old sign-painting shop directly next door, which he uses for his studio and turned the roof of the shop into a large terrace that leads into the dining room of his house. He and his wife, Barbara, met when he was fixing up the house. A mutual friend, sure they would hit it off, told Barbara she should go over to Leo's and see if he would rent her a room. The friend was right. Serendipity~-finding great things or experiences when you do not expect to - has always been a part of Leo's life.

As a kid in Annapolis, Maryland, he scouted the Navy dump and found all kinds of "whiz-bang" things. "Every week was like Christmas," he says of his childhood. But his parents told him he could not have all that junk just lying around -he would have to make something with it. Leo's father, a teacher, was obsessed with finding things and restoring them. He had a home workshop where he refinished furniture and made simple things from objects he had salvaged. It sounds like the apple did not fall far from the tree. Leo got his master's degree in art history from the University of Delaware. The subject of his thesis was, appropriately, "Use of the Found Obiect in Dada and Surrealism." His vocation was inevitable. Leo's attitude toward his finished artistic product is a little different from most artists', in that he makes sculpture in order to continue his obsession with finding things: leftover, discarded, man made artifacts. When you think about it, many craftsmen are in love with their materials. Leo's just happens to be junk.

Leo's aesthetic fits his philosophy, a belief in recycling, reusing, and using up- not choking the world with more waste. If you take ivory and ebony and gold and put them together, you can make something stupid and still have it look great because of the materials. Leo preters to make something useful and attractive out of discards. Making junk look great takes real talent.

Living Room

One of Leo's sculptures, entitled Miscellaneous (a phonetic pun), sits on a velvet-cushioned Gothic church bench. Near her left foot is a Leo junk dachshund; a Leo boxer sits nearby. The grandfather clock is made from cut up Ouija boards, wooden beads, children's blocks, rulers, and other oddments, in a classic open-pediment style. The finial is a pot-metal statuette of a cheerleader holding pom-poms in each hand. The clock face is from a local beverage vendor's establishment. The wing chair next to the clock, and the Chippendale-style straight-back chair opposite, are both upholstered in patches. Above the wing chair is one of Barbara's quilts. In the corner is a figural sculpture Leo made out of light bulbs. The giant insect larva-like object hanging from the stairs is actually a compacted stack of 1929 pharmacy receipts - Leo finds a use for everything! On the other side of the circular metal stairs that lead up to Barbara and Leo's bedroom is an old-fashioned washing machine used here just for its decorative value. The rocker in the foreground was a trash find; the green stained chest nearby serves as a coffee table. On top of it is a wooden puzzle Leo made using photographs of Abby and her schoolmates. The rug in the foreground is contemporary Iranian; the one in the background at right, also contemporary, is from Afghanistan. Next to the wing chair, on an old Philadelphia ballot box, sits a miniature tyrannosaurus that Leo made. In a corner, under the globe, is a smoking cabinet Leo's father made; its door pulls are smoking-pipe halves. On the chest of drawers under the window is an old shoe-making mold.’

I think Leo believes that you should make the most out of everything that is lying around in the world, or "eating everything on your plate." But for him it is more than just using up, reusing, making something useful. He takes an extra step and transforms trash into wonderful pieces of art. It is not enough for him to say, "Well, now I found a use for all this junk so I feel better about myself." He wants to make something beautiful. But Leo does love the junk itself. He used to go out religiously, three times a week, with a pickup truck to different dumps, Salvation Army centers, factories, and specialty junk dealers (one a guy who has thousands of license plates). After twenty-five years of this, he has a whole network of places and contacts. Leo likes the daily interaction with people and the adventure of finding things in a big city.

In his studio Leo has things stored up to the ceiling - corridors full of stuff - but it is very neat. When you have that much stuff, you have to organize it. Barbara is actively involved in her husband's work and does most of the organizing for the consumption of junk. She has a computer in her newly constructed office in their home, where she keeps track of the many church sales, yard sales, and flea markets in the area, as well as works on the selection and placement of Leo's objects in the house. She also keeps her hand in the real estate business, an earlier full-time career, and occasionally makes quilts.

Leo's sculptures have a wooden core. He screws and nails and bolts things onto the core, shaping the piece as he goes along and building it up bit by bit. He packs everything so tightly you see only the things immediately behind the outer layer. His furniture includes a small buffet-bar, separating the kitchen from the dining room made of Pennsylvania license plates. A grandfather clock in the living room is made partly from cut-up Ouija boards, wooden beads, and children's blocks. In addition to the furniture, some of his sculptures can be found in the house. A life-size assembled woman sits on a real pew in the living room. (Leo likes to make things life-size.)

The house is compact. The first floor has a long hall running from the front door to the arched back door, leading to the backyard. Daughter Abby's room is tucked into one corner, and Barbara's office is next door. The third floor, the old hayloft, is Barbara and Leo's bedroom. It has an enormous skylight and is just as filled with oddities as is the rest of the house.

Dining Room

An assortment of chairs surrounds the dining table. The chair at the head of the table was restored by Leo's father. The container on the table is by Roseville, an early twentieth-century pottery company. The sideboard against the wall is made from skis, poised vertically, with dartboards and a cribbage board at the top and colored rulers below, all applied to an old jelly cupboard. The floor-standing wine cooler to the left is composed of various metal containers. The painting, from 1946, was purchased at a yard sale. The chandelier above the dining table is made partly from the innards of a washing machine.


Part of the open space on the second floor, the kitchen is just beyond the top of the stairs and the dictionary stand. The freestanding buffet separating the kitchen from the dining area is made of old Pennsylvania license plates. Leo made the open cupboard next to the refrigerator; the base has an old icebox door. The thick countertop is from a bowling alley and supports a collection of bowls. On top of the refrigerator, which displays one of Abby's drawings is a little nouse made or rulers. On the wall next to the refrigerator is a painting of cows by an anonymous woman, and a framed collection of old Philadelphia mummers ribbons. The half-wall partition at the lower right has a glass panel behind which Leo has arranged colortul patches or dryer lint.

The second floor - the filling in the sandwich - is where most of the daytime living takes place. The open space is sectioned off into a kitchen, dining area, living room, and bathroom. A curving metal staircase in the living room leads up to the hayloft/master bedroom. High arched windows in the rooms look out on the street and the backyard. A door in the dining room leads out to the second-floor terrace.

If you look carefully at the objects Leo has made, and see them without preconceptions, you see them differently, as pieces of art. A hard second look, and the objects transcend the material from which they are made and you see the concepts and associations behind them.

What Leo does is integrate ideas that give joy and delight, without all the baggage of authority, the biases, and prejudices of the high-powered art establishment. With a number of craftsmen, I have noticed the intoxication of dealing directly with their heart and intuitions, of making something with no encumbrances or restraints. It does something marvelous to your spirit if you can sustain that direct connection, and Leo has managed to raise it to an art form.


The master bedroom on the top floor is lit by arched windows and a skylight. The bed in the center is covered with a quilt Barbara made from clothing scraps. The rug beside the bed was bought at a charity auction; it depicts George Washington entering heaven. Family mittens and gloves hanging on the clothesline are there because Barbara and Leo like the way they look. Sometimes they hang T-shirts as well, or whatever strikes their fancy. The laths covering the ceiling were found and nailed over Styrofoam insulation, which was also retrieved. The cedar chest at the head of the bed was another discovery, as was the lamp on it, which was picked up in a trash bin. At the foot of the bed is a braided rug made by Leo and Barbara from old neckties. A very strange rug in the room (not seen) was braided from plastic bread bags. The stuffed owl in the rafters was a gift. The spiral object silhouetted against the window is one of Leo's favorite creations: a snake made from the bottom halves of forty flatirons.

Wall, Detail

The wall display includes an actual window with old glass negatives fitted out by Leo. The wooden box on the left holds tooth samples from a dentist's office and supports two stuffed birds intended for a lady's hat, and a framed luna moth - one of the few things Leo did not possess as a child, although he did collect moths. Below the barometer on the right is a plaque that reads "mid-life crisis." That hole in the wall is not what it seems - it is a photograph of a hole in the wall.


It is a wonder the household can brush their teeth in the morning with all the arrangements in the bathrooms. The second-floor bathroom is just on the other side of the kitchen, looking toward the dining room. Reflected in the medicine chest mirror are various religious finds of Leo's that are mounted on the opposite wall. The photographs left of the medicine chest include one of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and one of a Hollywood movie star. The upstairs bathroom, photographs, drawings, stitchery pieces, and an oil painting of palm trees surround a giant eyeball, making it difficult to take a shower.


Leo stands in his workshop where the uncountable numbers of discards and finds are neatly arranged in drawers, cases, and boxes and on shelves right up to the ceiling. The round pedestal supporting the worktable in front of him is from a dentist's office.

Terrace Off Second Floor

The rocket in the foreground is Leo's creation: it is twelve feet high and was assembled mostly from aluminum pails, buckets, and garbage cans. On the other side of the woodpile (there's a woodstove in the living room), is a Leo Palm tree - its base is a pedestal from a dentist's office. its leaves are license plates. The terrace is used for gardening and for dining alfresco in good weather. The indoor dining room is just on the other side of the door. The old stone building glimpsed in the background is an Episcopal church.


Leo whistles to his collection of junk-composed animal sculptures. A duck sits on a birdbath in the middle of a garden. A horse, almost life-size, stands near the door. Other animals include a pig, another duck, a few dogs, and a miniature African elephant. Through the arched back door, the center hallway that leads to the front door can be glimpsed.

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