A treasure discovered Sculpture: A curious piece of art found in a Hampden hardware store is recognized by the Library of Congress.

March 06, 1998|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

A small hardware store in Hampden now has a place in the nation's art collection.

In a strange sequence of events that might have only happened here, a pipe sculpture of a human figure made by a boy 40 years ago has leapt into the realm of posterity, preserved by the Library of Congress.

How it happened tells a tale of two Hampdens, old and new, meeting as neighbors do -- walking along the street.

David Plunkert, 32, a graphic designer whose work has won awards and acclaim, first noticed the little figure in the window of Sirkis Paint and Hardware in 1993, when he opened his Falls Road studio two blocks away.

It was a moment of inspiration for Plunkert, which bore fruit years later when he was searching for an image to illustrate a poster. In a child's creation, he discovered a symbol striking enough to splash across a poster advertising a portfolio exhibition in Washington. In the language of his trade, he speaks of artistic commissions as "problems" that need "solutions."

"When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty. I think only of how to solve the problem," said Plunkert, who works in an old church converted into a studio. "But if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong."

He titled the poster "Portfolio X-hibition" in a pun on the anatomically correct male form and entered it in an annual competition held by the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) in New York.

To his delight, the poster won an AIGA award in New York last year.

Recently, the poster received another accolade: a place in the Library of Congress permanent collection of prints and photographs.

"It's a captivating piece, very original and quite eye-catching," said Elena Millie, the Library of Congress curator who chose Plunkert's work for the 100,000-piece poster collection. Speaking of the "bold and clear" poster design, Millie added, "You wouldn't find it in another time, another decade."

But the original figure does come from another time, another era: working-class Baltimore in the late 1950s. Tracing its maker is a winding journey to the boyhood of Dr. Barry Walters, now a 47-year-old cardiologist practicing in Baltimore.

He was the boy whose handiwork in the window inspired Plunkert's poster. As the son of the store's owner, Jerome Walters, he spent summers working there. He said the sculpture was "something I did some day when I was bored."

The body is made of pipe fittings, with an old-fashioned toilet float for a face.

Neither Walters, a married father of two, nor his 73-year-old father remembers when he made "Pipeman," as it is known in the family.

"I was very impressed with it, but I honestly didn't think of it as a piece of art," said Jerome Walters. He put his son's work in the window, where it has stood since, and has refused all offers to buy it. Instead, he made duplicates for $35 to $40 for Plunkert and others who asked over the years.

He said the hardware store was opened by his father-in-law, Morris Sirkis, in the 1920s. He joined the family business in 1948 and worked there nearly 50 years, six days a week, before selling it to Daniel Friedlander a few years ago.

The hardware store looks like a vintage piece of Hampden history, hardly disturbed since the penny nail days when the Walters family kept it open until midnight Christmas Eve for the crush of customers.

"People were wall to wall on the Avenue," recalled Jerome Walters, referring to the main street in Hampden's downtown. He still works -- or "helps out" -- in the store, where he enjoyed dispensing free advice to customers, on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

During a recent visit, Barry Walters pointed out the wall drawers containing items such as wooden crab mallets, switches, doorbells and fuses, remembering the time he painted them in a blue, orange and yellow scheme and remarking that they remain unchanged.

It was in the hardware store that co-creators Walters and Plunkert met.

"So I can say I've got work in the Library of Congress," said Walters, shaking his head at the notion. As an adult, he said, he no longer makes art pieces, but is good at handyman chores around the house.

"You could call this cheap symbolism," said Plunkert, laughing. He gave Walters the poster and signed it for him.

In explaining how picturing the figure against a background of deep blue "makes a comment," he said, "It makes the familiar unfamiliar." He also added a human face to make the image seem more surreal.

Noting that the Illustrators Club commissioned the poster, he added, "It does things that illustrators do, in this case transforming plumbing parts into a person."

Plunkert's work is considered "pretty cutting edge," said Randy Lyhus of the Illustrators Club.

Gabriela Mirensky, program coordinator of the AIGA in New York, expressed surprise at the idea's origin. "We never thought it [the figure] was something that existed," she said.

But the story behind the poster makes perfect sense to Millie, the Library of Congress curator who selects between 50 and 100 posters a year to join the world's largest international collection.

"The street was the art gallery," said Millie, who said that posters dating to the mid-19th century advertising circuses and patent medicines are authentically "the people's art."

A street in Hampden is still just that. The current owner of the hardware store, Friedlander, said he is considering putting a spotlight on the figure. "It's a real conversation piece," he said.

Pub Date: 3/06/98

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