Artist creates world from leftovers

THIS JUST IN ...

July 01, 1996|By DAN RODRICKS

It must be testimony to the mass of Planet Leizman that on my second visit there I was moved to ask if a certain painting, roughly the size of a squash court, had been added to a wall since my first visit just three days earlier.

The artist, Bill Leizman, laughed. The painting, a quilt of abstract shapes and color, was not only huge but surrounded by other things that obviously had been fixed to the three-story brick interior for years. Still, somehow I had missed it. That's my point. That's how visually overpowering Planet Leizman is; it is one of the most stunning places I have ever visited and a genuine discovery on the side streets of East Baltimore.

An explorer could spend months on Planet Leizman -- my term for the place -- and never see and touch, much less think about, everything, though everything is within grasp. One of Bill Leizman's friends estimated that 50,000 "things" inhabit the old street car powerhouse near Broadway -- three floors, several rooms washed in natural light and "things" everywhere -- on tables, on shelves, on ceilings.

Planet Leizman is not a warehouse, not a studio, not a private museum, not merely one of those but all of those, and then some. It is altogether a work of art, in the most fantastic sense. And I'm not sure even Bill Leizman understands what he has there, nor does he appreciate its potential as a public attraction. (There are no plans to make it one.)

Name something. Think of something. There's a chance it could appear. Tools from three different American centuries -- farm tools, blacksmith tools, shipwright's tools, the tools of cabinetmakers, sculptors, shoemakers, optometrists, dentists, foundry workers, railroad workers, coopers, steel workers, butchers and soldiers. All those tools -- hammers and anvils, screwdrivers and crowbars, gimlets and chisels, saws for cutting wood, saws for cutting ice, wrenches as heavy as the men who once used them -- live side by side with an extraordinary array of pop culture icons, including McDonald's Happy Meal toys and plastic lunchboxes, baubles and trinkets and jewelry, as well as several of Bill Leizman's artistic experiments in ceramic, steel and canvas. They live not in clutter but in some kind of pleasing configuration.

As the artist moves through the place, familiar with each resident, he acts as the custodian of this industrial purgatory, a sincere advocate for each piece and its place in the history of labor. "Everything came from nothing," Bill Leizman says, gesturing to cast-iron objects from the 18th century. "Man created all these things from ... from nothing, from the dirt. Man started creating his things from the dirt."

As an artist, Leizman has toiled long, hard and successfully, creating sculptures for public places. But he and his wife, Roslyn, also have spent four decades picking through the leftovers of American life -- from the Colonial period, through the industrial age, through the 20th century. They have assembled a collection of tools that would be the envy of industrial museums, as well as the bric-a-brac of American home life celebrated today in yard sales and flea markets.

In gathering all these bits and pieces, Bill Leizman was looking for something he could use, either as an element of a new work of art or as a tool for fashioning his sculptures.

Partly by design, partly by accident, all things in Planet Leizman form an artistic labyrinth, a metal-wood-and-leather underworld friendly to visitors, and bristling with the potential for surprise and absurdity. It is an environment reminiscent of the fantasies of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Select a sledgehammer, hold it and you can almost feel the fingers of a foundry worker on the handle. Pick up an adz and sense the calluses of the farmer who used it to fashion roof beams. Sit in a barber's chair and smell witch hazel. Run your hand over an artillery piece from World War I and hear the homicidal roars of the 20th century.

"Whatever is made, some more pleasing to the eye than others, is here," Roslyn Leizman wrote in a journal after I visited the place for the first time and probably asked too many questions about how it all came to be. "A reflection of public taste, commercial value, industry, fashion, necessity ... not order out of chaos; the chaos is the order.

... We are looking at a world of endless variety [in which objects] have an endless relation to each other."

She speaks of "the kaleidoscopic energy" of the human eye and how, in Planet Leizman, that energy subtly changes each image and each group of images as we turn our heads left, right, down, up. "The act of looking," she says, "provokes possibilities and memories and surprises and secrets."

There is probably a talisman for everyone in Planet Leizman. I discovered shapes that reminded me of the foundry life I knew as a boy when my father, 10 years dead this month, made iron "things" -- gears and machine parts, mostly -- out of scrap. Every tool in the foundry was heavy, every day of work hard and brutally hot. Men melted iron in volcanic stack furnaces and poured the metal into molds of pressed black sand. And the things my father created seemed to come, as Bill Leizman said, out of nothing, out of dirt.

I found in a corner of Planet Leizman the kind of long-handled ladles that were used to pour red-hot iron into molds. I saw sledgehammers like those used to knock the risers off new castings and to separate them. The old foundry tools seemed to be waiting, in the wash of sun from the skylight, to ascend with the spirits of the men who once used them.

Pub Date: 7/01/96

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