Tulsa World News

Gage Artist Insists His Work is Just Junk.

By Mike Strain, Managing Editor, Tulsa World Media Company.

This article is reprinted with permission by Tulsa World Media Company. It first appeared Monday, March 29, 1993.





Gage "Artist' Insists His Work is Just Junk


GAGE (AP) - The exact moment Jim Powers evolved from a junkman to a

distinguished folk artist slips his mind. A year ago, he was merely messing

around in his salvage yard, welding odd pieces together in shapes that fit

his fancy and tickled his wit.

Since then, people have begun to buy the items he creates.

His work is displayed in museums in Denmark and England.

He's been featured in a nationally distributed cartoon strip

and received media attention.

At home in Gage, his front yard is a tourist attraction

and he has a charge account at the Bullseye Cafe.

But Powers has noticed that others are taking this more

seriously than he is, and it concerns him.

So, throughout a conversation, he carefully and frequently

reminds listeners, "It's just junk."

Powers, who's nearly an art object himself, has run a salvage

and recycling operation in Gage since his military retirement.

The recycling is a belief as well as an income source, but

a few years ago the chunks of junk thrown away from the

throwaways began to look like art materials.

Refrigerator parts are valuable, air conditioner pulleys,

wheel rims, wagon brakes, iron skillets. An oil pan might

shape up into a bear. A Will Rogers statue began as oilfield

pipe and exhaust system parts. From a Model T rear end,

washing machine wringer and bike sprockets emerged an archaeopteryx,

a primeval flying dinosaur.

He started with a broken bug zapper and imagined a cowboy

built around it. The Bullseye Cafe in Gage bought it for

interior decoration. "That's when I realized somebody liked

it besides me."

He took some of his Jimmy Birds - mutant creatures of shovel

blades and bike forks and peculiar charm - to local art

shows. They migrated to homes around the country and soon

his creations came to the attention of Ripley's ("Believe

It or Not"), which has museums around the world.

They bought his life-size wheel-rim elephant, his tire-chain

buffalo, his junk-assembled swinging pterodactyl, his cowboy

on bucking Brahma (water tank and pickup truck I-beam suspension),

a warthog, some Jimmy birds.

The buffalo is currently on display in Copenhagen, a bird

in Great Yarmouth, England. Others have been placed in Hollywood

and in St. Augustine, Fla., where he walked in and "like

to nearly fell over backward to see my own display."

Ripley's recently featured him in one of its syndicated

"Believe It or Not" cartoons, alongside a 33-inch fish

and a city that banned snowfall. That honor entitled him

to pass out business cards reproducing the drawing, which

dubs him the "Junkyard Picasso."

Still, he's equally proud that his buffalo won a prize at

a Woodward museum show. He works when the weather is good

and he makes nothing for commercial purposes only.

He hasn't raised his prices since he sold his first bird.

"I figure people are buying it because they like it, and

I enjoy it. I just like to have enough money to keep buying the junk."

Some are toys suited for children: a space ship is mounted on a hydraulic

jack so it can be tilted while a child sits in it. Some are toys for him: a

cannon emits a loud noise and a puff of baby powder; when marathon runners

started out of Gage last year, "I loaded it on a riding lawnmower and went

down and started the race."

He's nearly ready to give up his lion, so he mailed a photo to Ripley's,

which is showing interest. The fierce feline has a face like an oilpan. Its

ears are combine sickle blades, the mane is buzzsaw blades, the body is six

bell-housings, its legs a car frame, its feet bathtub legs, toes of fingers

from a cotton-picking machine, tail a pump handle, tongue a chainsaw bar,

teeth a garden rake.

But the camel is a different tale. Made from more wheel

rims than he can recall, it's being courted by a camel racetrack

owner in Arizona. However, "I'm not ready to sell it. I

want to play with it some more. I want to put it on a trailer

and go to a few parades."

He wants it to stay in his front-yard menagerie so people can see it.

Indeed, cars sometimes come to a sudden stop on the highway

that runs by his shop. They also drive slowly down his street,

circle and come back. He explains that this happens mostly

on "Sunday afternoons, after people get out of church,

and have kinfolk come in."

Powers has neither art training nor engineering education.

The designs are inspired by the shapes he sees in useless

objects and a sensitivity to what metal parts can do.

"I seen those cultivator seats and a turkey popped up," he says. A

gigantic buffalohead catfish (water tanks and barrels) is perfectly balanced

on a utility pole so that it swings around his yard as a weather vane. There

were no formal physics calculations involved. "I centered it on pipes on the

garage floor until it worked."

He points to his forehead and explains, "The blueprints

are up here." If his experiments don't work out, he emphasizes

again, "It's just junk. I throw it in the junk pile."

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