Turning scrap metal into art
By DIANA GILBERT / Windsor Correspondent
When James Selby looks at a carburetor, he doesn’t just see a car part. He sees the building blocks of a lamp.
When a friend brought him the carburetor from a car that had burned, he saw something special.
“When it caught on fire, it didn’t melt. It just wrinkled,” he said. “When the light hit it the right way, it had a completely different appearance, especially the gears and the bearings.”
He added a metal platform, ran a tube up the center for wiring and finished with a lampshade, ensuring that light would always illuminate the metal’s unique texture.
Although Selby has spent the past 34 years as an auto machinist, he has begun to see the materials of his trade as the foundation of a unique art form.
When he’s not in Santa Rosa at the machine shop he owns with his brother, these days you’ll find the 59-year-old at James Selby Scrap Metal Design, his studio off Cleveland Avenue.
There he transforms metal things like golf cleats, chains, valve covers, wire cables and coil springs into works of art. Using scrap metal, he has created animals, people, flowers and musical instruments.
A Sonoma County native, Selby lived in Healdsburg and Santa Rosa before moving to Windsor more than 30 years ago. As a young man, he joined his father and brother in the family business.
“I’ve loved art ever since I was young,” he said. “My mom was an artist and a stay-at-home mom, and I was always inspired by her artwork. I didn’t feel comfortable trying to make a living as an artist, so I chose to follow my father into the business.”
In 2000, Selby invited his son to join him at a welding class at Santa Rosa Junior College, just because it sounded interesting.
“My son decided that he was more interested in girls than in welding, but I thoroughly enjoyed it,” Selby said.
The first time he made a lamp, he said, “My eyes just opened. I couldn’t believe what had just taken place. It was gears and various metals stacked on one another in an interesting form, but it became more than just metal.”
After that Selby started practicing, using welding to make functional art pieces like plant stands, tables, lamps and clocks.
In 2002, he started showing and selling his art at the Windsor Farmers Market, and in 2004 someone suggested that he submit something to the Windsor Fine Art Show. He entered a lamp, a table and a clock, selling all three.
The following year he tried non-functional art and in 2009 took Best-in-Show for the sculpture of a man playing an upright bass that sold for $1,800.
Currently, Selby focuses almost exclusively on non-functional art pieces made from common metal items.
“The metals come from anywhere from the garage to the kitchen to the stove top. I use familiar objects because I want people to connect with them when I put them together.
“When something has been around for a while it’s neat to see it used in a different way.”
One sculpture on display in Selby’s studio is a snake. A woven stainless steel hose forms its body, and the tines of a fork are its fangs.
The studio, which Selby opened in December 2011, has a showroom and a workshop where he cleans and organizes his metal pieces before welding them into new shapes.
He uses a wire brush to clean the metals, then arranges them by both shape and size.
“I have boxes of round pieces and straight pieces, for example. I keep items I’ll use for feet in one place and eyes in another.”
Selby rarely has to purchase his raw materials unless he is looking for something specific.
“Everything here is donated to me. People who know what I do bring me things from their homes. I’ve only turned something down once, when someone offered me a whole car.”
Just the other day he made a cello player, for example, using a scissor-style bumper jack for the torso and seating him on the base of a metal chair. And an old brick rotor became a perfect little hat for a horseshoe player.
Sometimes Selby sees a metal shape that inspires an artistic creation and sometimes it works the other way around. People commission him to make a specific piece that he then builds from what he has.
“Someone asked me to make a dachshund, and it took me a while to find the perfect head,” he said.
I looked for a while before I discovered that a hammer head was a perfect fit.”
Selby hopes his work inspires other people to be creative. “When someone sees one of my pieces, I want it to speak to them,” he said.
Most of his creations now sell for for between $100 and $1,000, depending on how complex they are. He normally spends several days on each and has donated several to organizations like Worth our Weight, the Windsor Fire Department and Steele Lane Elementary School.
To learn more about Selby’s artwork, visit his website at www.selbydesign.com or call 484-1598 to schedule an appointment.