It’s said that Michelangelo thought every block of marble held within it a piece of art waiting to be revealed. Michael Ulman believes in something along those lines — but instead of marble, junk is his medium. Ulman lives in a beautiful wasteland of creativity, and sees the objects that others have tossed aside as treasures waiting for a new life. He produces museum-worthy pieces, with his sculptures taking residence in the Haas Motorcycle Museum and assorted private collections the world over. He even heeded the call of film director George Miller to help with set design on Mad Max: Fury Road, building the infamous flame-throwing guitar played by The Doof Warrior. Ulman is about as close as one can come to a real-life alchemist.
The Boston-based artist was introduced to the art world by his father, who was a sculptor. Together they created projects in their basement and Ulman realized he had a passion for art. As he grew he developed his own style by taking inspiration from artists such as Hans Bellmer and Picasso as much as craftsmen like Indian Larry.
Ulman gets excited about using many small pieces to create something much bigger. “I’ve always been enamored of shapes and objects,” he says. “I look at them differently than everyone else. I see everything as having the potential to become something else, and I’m often motivated to push my own limits of what I can create and how I can make visions become reality.” Some sculptures can take up to five years to finish while Ulman searches for the perfect few pieces to complete a work.
I look for objects that were destined for some mundane existence and give them new purpose through my sculpture.
“Being a found-object sculptor, I am in the unique position of finding my materials anywhere, such as junkyards, dumpsters, and trash heaps,” Ulman explains. “I look for objects that were destined for some mundane existence and give them new purpose through my sculpture.” The discarded remains of the Industrial Age are reincarnated as motorcycles, race cars, speed boats, human-esque figures, and even musical instruments. A frying pan becomes a fender, a vacuum cleaner a sidecar, and a mailbox a hot rod. A table leg might become part of a body, and an engine pulley belt may become a guitar strap.
“Powerful motors are the central force behind my work,” Ulman says. “My challenge is to create static sculptures that evoke the sound, movement, and raw power that inspire them. When people look at my art I want them to feel the engine resonating throughout their body. I want them to hear the throaty roar of the exhaust as they are drawn into my world. I achieve this by being free of mechanical obligations, and therefore scale and proportion are of little consequence and allow me to explore fantasies that have never been seen on the open road.”
The process of making his art is a form of therapy — an oasis of peace in a world full of distractions. “It’s a calming experience for me to create in my studio. I’m generally at my happiest when I’m working and staying creative. I try to stay in that headspace as much as possible.”
One such distraction is tackling the marketing side of his career as an artist. “It’s intimidating and a necessary part of the process,” he says, but Ulman has worked hard for many years to sell himself in order to become a full-time artist. “Making sure I can maintain this life is now my top priority.”
Being an artist gives Ulman the ability to express himself and his vision without limits or restrictions. “It’s incredibly rewarding. I’m always working to refine myself as an artist and ensure my work is continually getting better. I love looking back on my first pieces and seeing how far I’ve come, and that is what drives me to stay focused and committed to my craft.”
If society does happen to collapse in our lifetime, we know who we’re calling first. Ulman’s resourcefulness and craft will likely come in handy as we scour the barren ruins of Massachusetts for fuel, water, and tetanus-infested accouterments for our hell-rods.