Santa Barbara News-Press, Sunday, July 13, 2014
Professor of Parts: Math instructor creates sculptures from scrap metal
by Marilyn McMahon, News-Press Staff Writer
Anyone visiting the home of Tal and Lisa Avitzur is probably going to leave with a sore neck - from swiveling their heads around to see one idiosyncratic piece of decor after another.
From the metal gears of different sizes embedded in the concrete countertops in the kitchen to doors made of corrugated iron to the trompe l'oeil fireplace with a green marble facade and burning logs painted on plywood next to a wall where a large cutout of Superman soars through space.
"Who doesn't love Superman?" asks Mr. Avitzur.
And then there are the whimsical robot-like sculptures and other pieces of art that Mr. Avitzur makes out of scrap metal he finds in marine and auto salvage yards, metal recycling centers, construction sites, swap meets and yard sales.
"Some vintage parts can be 50 to 80 years old. Parts may show some wear and tear such as dings and scrapes from their previous lives," said Mr. Avitzur. "They are not toys. Each piece is a one-of-a-kind sculpture that should be handled gently and with care."
The soft-spoken math professor at Santa Barbara City College said his fascination for creating the sculptures, which include masks, wall hangings and a variety of other pieces, began when he bought his house in 1996 on a private lane near La Cumbre Road.
"It was a real fixer, needed a lot of work, but I spent all my money on the down payment," Mr. Avitzur, 52, told the News-Press. "My friend, Adam Weidemann, who had built yachts in Maine, was visiting at the time, and he saw a major remodel as a challenge to see how much we could accomplish with no money. We began searching metal scrap yards for brass, bronze and copper objects."
Proudly, Mr. Avitzur points to the backsplash made of recycled copper in the tiny but efficient kitchen. Salvaged marine parts were used for kitchen cabinet and gate handles, curtain rods, robe hooks, windows and light fixtures.
The two scavengers were amazed at what they found - vintage vacuum cleaners, floor polishers, kitchen appliances, tools, lab equipment and many things whose original use remains a mystery.
"I knew that if I did not take them home, they would be smelted and lost forever. Thus began my obsession with collecting retro junk. Frequently, parts appear at my front door thanks to friends who indulge in my odd habit," he said with a smile.
As his collection increased, Mr. Avitzur began storing them in an old garden shed that was in the backyard when he bought the property.
It is now his workshop, where he cleans his finds, most of which are often grimy and greasy when he retrieves them. Often, he takes them apart and carefully sorts them on hooks and shelves until he finds a use for them.
"The workshop bench usually has a few different projects going at any time. Sometimes, sculptures need to be put aside for months while waiting for just the right salvaged part," said Mr. Avitzur. "Each piece begins with finding the personality in an object, then test fitting combinations together and cutting, drilling and grinding until reaching a natural-looking fit."
He is putting the finishing touches on a sculpture whose body is a vintage volt meter with a head that was once an electric food mixer with green eyes of glass that light up and strands of hair that are copper wire plastic coated in pink, blue and yellow.
The arms and hands are made of aluminum scraps from an electrical panel box, and the legs are from an Electrolux vacuum cleaner.
"The size is determined by the parts. When I see a part I really like, I go from there. It's all fun. There is no hidden meaning or purpose. My inspiration comes from a youth filled with a healthy dose of science fiction, mythology, comic books and still having the playful mind of a 7-year-old," said Mr. Avitzur, who was born in Haifa, Israel, and moved to Bethlehem, Pa., at the age of 1 when his father, Dr. Betz Avitzur, became a metallurgy professor at Lehigh University.
A graduate of Lehigh with a bachelor's degree in mathematics, Mr. Avitzur came to UCSB in 1983 to earn a master's degree in math in 1985.
While at UCSB, he lived at the home of Irma Cavat, an internationally known painter and a UCSB art professor. "She introduced me to the world of art. I grew up in a family of scientists - my sister is a doctor, and my brother is an engineer. I enjoyed Irma's lifestyle and her artist friends, who really loved what they were doing. I met people like George Rickey, a sculptor widely known for his abstract kinetic sculptures - one of his works is at the entrance to the Santa Barbara Museum of Art - and Beatrice Wood, the famous ceramic artist who lived in Ojai," recalled Mr. Avitzur.
He and Ms. Cavat remain great friends, and it was she who painted the faux fireplace in the living area, which the Avitzurs, who share their home with Mancha, a blind 10-year-old German shepherd, call their "Boom Boom Room."
He had no career plans after UCSB, so he moved to Washington, D.C., to do operations research with the Navy.
"I loved the job and loved the people, but I was terrible at it, so I left after two years and came back to Santa Barbara, which I really missed. I began to teach math part time at City College. I never expected to be doing it 20 years later," he chuckled.
But then again, Mr. Avitzur never expected to be the owner of a business he calls Talbotics, which sells his whimsical work online for prices ranging from $650 to more than $2,000.
"Making these one-of-a-kind, found-object sculptures has allowed me to indulge my passion for creating art, while giving new life to discarded objects and perhaps preserving a bit of industrial history," he said. "I enjoy the excitement people show when they recognize parts that have been repurposed into their new incarnations."
For more information about Talbotics sculptures, which are sold online only, visit www.talbotics.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
"Some vintage parts can be 50 to 80 years old. Parts may show some wear and tear such as dings and scrapes from their previous lives," said Mr. Avitzur.
"Each piece begins with finding the personality in an object, then test fitting combinations together and cutting, drilling and grinding until reaching a natural-looking fit," according to Mr. Avitzur.
An old garden shed in his backyard has become Tal Avitzur's workshop where he creates whimsical robot-like sculptures and other pieces of art out of scrap metal he finds in marine and auto salvage yards, metal recycling centers, construction sites, swap meets and yard sales.