It was a will of iron versus a pile of iron.
Liz Young was tugging at an ancient, wide-toothed cogwheel partially buried beneath a jagged stack of scrap metal at an Alameda Street junkyard.
She finally freed it with a yank and held it triumphantly.
“There are wonderful things here,” Young said, running her hand lovingly over one of the rusting, dirt-encrusted cogs. “Beautiful things.”
Young sees things from a different angle than most other people. She sees them as a sculptor. And she sees them from a wheelchair.
Paralyzed from the waist down by a 1976 car crash, she has carved and pounded out her own niche as one of Los Angeles’ most independent artists.
When she constructs room-sized exhibitions for galleries in such places as San Francisco and Phoenix, she uses nails that she has cast herself from handmade molds. When an exhibit requires a real-life human form to give it scale, she uses herself: She hoists herself into a sitting position in the middle of the scene and then shoves away her chair.
Young tries not to let the wheelchair get in her way.
Her artwork is often more easily measured in tons than in inches. Her artist’s materials are more likely to be gathered from grimy scrap yards and alleys near downtown Los Angeles than from art store aisles.
She cajoles street people into helping her retrieve heavy chunks of metal she finds next to abandoned loading docks. Friends and other artists at the Sante Fe Avenue building where she lives and works help her move big pieces to be shaped and welded.
“I suppose people are surprised when they see me,” said Young, 33. “I’m a minority all the way around--a woman and handicapped. I don’t think people expect to see me going through junkyards and scrap piles.”
Young was a college freshman active in gymnastics and dancing when a car in which she was riding plunged 350 feet down a Colorado mountainside. Two friends in the automobile escaped with minor injuries, but Young’s back was broken.
After the crash, Young studied to be an artist. She turned to sculpture at the Otis Art Institute of Parsons School of Design in Los Angeles in the early 1980s.
Her work since then has ranged from finger-sized bronze castings of twigs and sticks to an imposing two-story indoor jungle setting that simulates an Amazon rain forest. It is displayed at a cosmetic maker’s Woodland Hills headquarters and includes 13-foot-tall trees, stands of bamboo and vines constructed of carefully shaped and textured iron and steel.
“It’s a joy to come into work every day and see this,” said Rick Hunnewell of Simi Valley as he brought his 3-year-old son, Troy, to the office to view the unusual forest scene.
“People are amazed by what she does,” agreed Bennett Roberts, co-owner of the Richard Bennett Gallery in West Hollywood. “People who don’t have any kind of physical handicap cannot do the major installations she is able to do.”
Roberts speculates that some of Young’s inspiration comes from her wheelchair.
He said a mock electric chair, complete with arm and leg bindings, was included in one of Young’s exhibitions at his gallery. “It had to be her idea of being entrapped in a chair,” Roberts said.
A Times review in 1986 of one of Young’s shows at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE) described her use of oppressive “heavy metal contraptions.”
Art critic Suzanne Muchnic--who was unaware of Young’s paralysis--wrote that Young’s work “is said to be autobiographical, ‘an internal psychic landscape.’ If so, it’s no rose garden. Her exploration leads her to a horrific prison of cages and torture chairs. . . .”
Young laughs when asked if her limited mobility influences her work. “Subliminally, it comes through,” she joked. “I put wheels on everything.”
But other Los Angeles artists say that Young’s sculpture stands on its own.
“She’s not a bitter individual at all,” said Pam Goldblum, a West Adams District painter and printmaker. “Her work speaks for itself--it speaks from the heart.”
For a 1990 show at the New Langton Arts gallery in San Francisco, Young juxtaposed a lead pillar and twisted wooden branches in a room-sized solo exhibit she called “The Allowance of Pain.” To complete it, she hung paper on walls, spread dirt on the floor, constructed her own special lighting and topped it off with the amplified sound of a synthesized heartbeat.
“Her work is very strong, very powerful and personal,” said film actress Barbara Pilavin-Gelber of Hollywood, a longtime admirer. “It makes your heart stop. She’s totally fearless.”
Another friend, Los Angeles television production assistant Becky Young (who is unrelated to the artist), said she sometimes tags along when Young drives her hand-controlled pickup truck along back streets to scout for art materials.
Recent excursions turned up chunks of brass, several metal pulleys, pieces of rusty barbed wire, hunks of chain, brass coils and something resembling an oversized stainless-steel drain strainer. They are being stored in Young’s ground-floor studio for future projects.
She said Young isn’t sitting still.