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Sculptor Puts New Twist on Old Car Parts : Art: The junkyard owner finds his inspiration in dented hoods and old dipsticks. One of his works is a 21-foot black cat.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Russell Michael doesn’t much mind if people say his art is junk.

That’s exactly what it is before he gets his hands on it.

Michael, a 41-year-old Northridge resident, turns for the raw material of his sculptures not to blocks of Italian marble but to the castoffs in his Pacoima junkyard--rusted flywheels, smashed hoods, old dipsticks and other leftovers from defunct cars and trucks.

“There’s art in junk,” he contended at the Montague Street junkyard-cum-studio he bought this year to be closer to his raw materials and the visions that junk inspires in him.

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For the last six years, Michael has been giving new life to discarded auto parts, using them as components in abstract and primitive sculptures that he says have fetched as much as $3,500. His work is on display at an Agoura Hills art gallery.

Earlier this month, Michael erected his latest work, a 21-foot metal sculpture of a spear-wielding black cat, outside his wrecking yard. It holds a shield that was once the hood of a 1947 Austin Devon. Its face was once part of a hand-cranked machine for removing tires from wheels.

Latino workers in the area call the imposing piece “ El Diablo ,” or “The Devil,” because of its pointed ears and winding tail.

Michael calls it “The Protector.”

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“Instead of a junkyard dog, I’ve got a junkyard cat,” Michael said proudly.

Born in Baltimore, Michael moved to California in 1979. Over the years, he has operated a limousine service and a taxi company. But something always was itching to get out. Michael wanted to create something, anything, he said.

He tried writing screenplays, but without much luck. A song he wrote for his wife, Gail, won a minor music award in 1987, he said. Then he tried sculpture.

It clicked.

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His first piece was “California Native,” a 27-inch kinetic sculpture forged from old oil dipsticks. The piece earned him the nickname “Dipstick Artist” among his friends.

When he is not working on sculptures, Michael reassembles cars smashed in accidents. The work is creative, requiring him to figure out how to make badly damaged autos whole again. And it pays the bills.

Inspiration for his work comes suddenly, sometimes while standing amid piles of auto parts. In the heaps of junked cars, he sees the limbs and faces of sculptures that are as yet little more than pencil sketches on the papers that litter his office.

He is also inspired by watching jazz musicians perform. Saxophonist Kenny G. inspired Michael to create a non-junk bronze sculpture called “Song Bird.”

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“I always knew I’d make it,” Michael said, proudly surveying his works in steel. “I just never knew how.”


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