Visual Arts: The Independent Collector - Lawrie Simonson

JOHN WINDSOR'S GUIDE TO COLLECTING CONTEMPORARY ART
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The Independent Culture
ANOTHER BUG - but quite unlike last week's computer-generated print of a ladybird. Lawrie Simonson trained as a graphic designer, but balked at computer imaging and took a course in welding at his local poly. Now, at 48, he is Britain's foremost junk sculptor.

His water beetle, shown here, is 2ft tall and weighs 12lb. Its body is a discarded car exhaust, its legs are iron rods, bent in a vice. The realistic feet have been welded on.

It is lurching slightly to one side, as water beetles do. Simonson observes them and other water creatures, lying on his tummy on the banks of ponds and lakes on Hampstead Heath, Hadley Woods and Trent Park. Beetles that venture into his kitchen find themselves being scrutinised for half an hour on the table, before being released into the garden.

The trouble with most junk sculpture is that it looks like, well, junk. But Simonson, who has a season ticket to London Zoo and his own library of natural history textbooks, sees particular species of animals hidden in every piece of junk he claps eyes on. This is what distinguishes him from run-of-the-mill junk sculptors, who are content to make wonky tables and chairs, or abstracts, or batches of the same well-worn idea - garden rakes as birds, for example.

Simonson is better known on the Continent than here. The Continentals are into junk art. They hold two-day junkfests attended by 10,000 people at which chosen artists, mainly from Europe, are confronted with a mountain of junk and told to get on with it.

Simonson's metal insects and birds were a hit at Drap Art in Barcelona and Braderie de l'Art in Roubaix, France, both in 1997. In Barcelona, in a marquee outside the Museum of Modern Art, 100 artists hammered, sawed and welded for two days. Roubaix was even more frenetic; only 24 hours were allowed for creating junk masterpieces. "I hardly had time to eat," he says.

Although 90 per cent of each of Simonson's sculptures is junk, it is his sensitively modelled additions that bring them to life - the beetle's swaying legs, for example, or the head of a curlew modelled from motorists' plastic padding, its body being the discarded head of a spade.

He found the beetle's body in a pile of 20 other worn-out exhaust pipes at an exhaust replacement centre in Archway, north London. "The man there looked at me as if I were mad," he says. But the staff at supermarkets in Soho's Chinatown have a more charitable view of the sculptor. They are flattered whenever he buys a shiny new colander or ladle - ideal for the thorax and head of insects - thinking that he has taken to Chinese cooking in a big way.

His dog's head is a water pump from a car engine, its stubby tail is a wood drill and its straight legs are the metal supports for system-built shelving. This is not just any old dog. It's a fox terrier.

The roof of Simonson's studio in Camden Town is a menagerie of creatures that have been scrubbed clean with wire wool, then left to acquire the patina that rain and rust bring.

What does he like most about all of his clinking, clanking creatures? "It's the humour," he says.

In the past 16 years Simonson has made about 50 junk creatures and has had five corporate and public commissions, including nine sculptures - birds, insects and a mobile of a mythological sailing ship - that are on show in the Tudor Barn of Hainault Forest Country Park. His last solo show was the Millennium Bug Show at the gallery 51 Poland Street, central London, last month. A selection of his sculptures is permanently on display at the Jelly Leg'd Chicken Arts Gallery in Reading, Berkshire (0118-950 7926). Prices range from pounds 500 to pounds 2,000.

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