Town Hill artist creates whimsical metal sculptures from odds and ends

This taxi--made using an old toaster oven and other everyday objects is one of many whimsical metal sculptures Ernie Abdelnour has fabricated in his Town Hill studio. Photographed Wednesday morning, September 15, 2010.  (Bangor Daily News/John Clarke Russ)
BDN
This taxi--made using an old toaster oven and other everyday objects is one of many whimsical metal sculptures Ernie Abdelnour has fabricated in his Town Hill studio. Photographed Wednesday morning, September 15, 2010. (Bangor Daily News/John Clarke Russ)
Posted Sept. 16, 2010, at 6:30 p.m.
At his studio in Town Hill, Ernie Abdelnour shows off one his " Thinking Hats" that he fashioned from various metal objects--new and found. Photographed Wednesday morning, September 15, 2010.  (Bangor Daily News/John Clarke Russ)
BDN
At his studio in Town Hill, Ernie Abdelnour shows off one his " Thinking Hats" that he fashioned from various metal objects--new and found. Photographed Wednesday morning, September 15, 2010. (Bangor Daily News/John Clarke Russ)
A metal pelican sculpture by Ernie Abdelnour graces the front yard of his studio in Town Hill. Photographed Wednesday morning, September 15, 2010.  (Bangor Daily News/John Clarke Russ)
BDN
A metal pelican sculpture by Ernie Abdelnour graces the front yard of his studio in Town Hill. Photographed Wednesday morning, September 15, 2010. (Bangor Daily News/John Clarke Russ)
This saxophone playing frog is one of many whimsical metal sculptures Ernie Abdelnour has fabricated in his Town Hill studio. Photographed Wednesday morning, September 15, 2010.  (Bangor Daily News/John Clarke Russ)
BDN
This saxophone playing frog is one of many whimsical metal sculptures Ernie Abdelnour has fabricated in his Town Hill studio. Photographed Wednesday morning, September 15, 2010. (Bangor Daily News/John Clarke Russ)
At his studio in Town Hill, Ernie Abdelnour used an acetylene torch to enhance the luster on the metal sails of a small-scale ship he fabricated from various metal objects--new and found. Photographed Wednesday morning, September 15, 2010.  (Bangor Daily News/John Clarke Russ)
BDN
At his studio in Town Hill, Ernie Abdelnour used an acetylene torch to enhance the luster on the metal sails of a small-scale ship he fabricated from various metal objects--new and found. Photographed Wednesday morning, September 15, 2010. (Bangor Daily News/John Clarke Russ)

The flying machine was suspended in the air. A glass Christmas ornament was its hot-air balloon, a faucet was its exhaust pipe, typewriter keys were levers and controls, and ornate eyeglass rims from China and perfume bottles from Nepal decorated the passenger car. Sitting in the back seat was a figurine girl with a finger to her mouth — she was hitching a ride.

Surrounding the machine were other metal sculptures, all dangling from the ceiling of Ernie Abdelnour’s garage-studio in Town Hill on Mount Desert Island. Their varnish still was drying from last week.

Abdelnour, 75, makes hot rods out of toasters and trains out of mailboxes.

“Everything has a second meaning,” he said. “Everything looks nice as something else.”

Hanging behind his workbench were two airplanes, a replica Captain Billy Blue from the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago and an Ace crop-dusting plane.

“I make them of brass, copper, steel, odds and ends, junk, anything. I have no pride,” he said. He’s always looking for material at auctions or stores such as T.J.Maxx and Marden’s.

During his usual workday, he gets up at 10 a.m. and heads to his garage-studio where he sculpts and runs his two-room gallery until 5 p.m.

“I work alone,” said Abdelnour, who also is the sole operator of the gallery. “I really enjoy all these things that aren’t related: a pincushion, a faucet, minibottles — and yet everything goes together to make something new. Things that are completely disorganized and don’t go together, come together.”

The gallery, a portion of his house between the garage and his living space, is a fantasy world, lined with shelves of frogs playing instruments, flying motorcycles, miniature villages, planes flying overhead, sailboats, tugboats and houses stacked up as if in an enormous tree.

“One day a little boy came in and said, ‘Look at the buoys, Dad,’” said Abdelnour, referring to the miniature buoys hanging off the side of a fishing house sculpture. “And I said, ‘Those are transistors.’ And I think I ruined that boy’s day. He’ll never be the same.”

Abdelnour’s sculpting started 50 years ago when his mother bought a sconce of metal leaves.

“I didn’t think I could afford it, so I made it,” he said.

Now, his sculptures are on display in about 45 countries.

He went to design school for men’s fashion in Boston, took courses in watercolor painting and attended Berkley School of Music.

“I went everywhere and learned nothing and now I’m here, preparing for a Maine winter,” he said.

Twenty years ago, he bought the house in Town Hill and opened two stores in Bar Harbor on Main Street and Cottage Street. He consolidated to one gallery in Town Hill 13-14 years ago.

Usually he spends the winter in Florida, but he’s decided to spend his third winter in Maine because it will be easier for both himself and his companion, a 5-year-old Maltese Poodle named Buddy.

“He flies with me, eats ice cream with me, watches TV and sleeps with me,” he said. “I’m sure if he had thumbs, we could play cards together.”

Buddy sleeps under Abdelnour’s work desk as he welds and bends metal. Each sculpture is complete when it “looks good to [his] eyes.”

To the left of his desk, Abdelnour has magazine photos of pelicans tacked up — a reference while creating bird sculptures. Mostly, he knows how machines, buildings and animals should look from being exposed to them or reading about them. He doesn’t study diagrams or use precise scales.

“Everything is to my eye. Everything is practice and determination,” he said, pointing out that there’s a difference between the first sculpture one makes and the hundredth sculpture.

When asked what tools he uses, he held up needle-nose pliers and said, “Nothing big, nothing expensive.”

He makes store signs, miniature book covers, plane labels and other graphics on his computer.

“I’ve built complete [replica] towns and villages for different restaurants down in Florida,” he said.

“Most stuff is whimsical, but I do some serious stuff,” he said pointing to a large copper and bronze bald eagle lifting a fish out of the water.

The eagle, priced at $2,500, is constructed of about 300 copper feathers embellished with melted bronze. The frame of the bird is built of copper sheets, and Abdelnour forms the detailed contours of the head and talons out of bronze, “drip by drip.”

Animals are difficult and time-consuming because the dimensions have to be perfect unless it’s intended to be abstract.

“There’s a hundred thousand mistakes in that,” said Abdelnour, spinning around one of his bizarre flying machines with his finger. “But you don’t know where I made a mistake, because [the machine] wasn’t there before.”

He sculpts in the summer and plans to paint acrylics in the house this winter. To try something new, he’s going to create jewelry out of his buckets of bronze and copper scraps.

“I’ve never done that before, but that doesn’t stop me,” he said.

Before the cold wind pushes him indoors, he hopes to make some more motorcycles, specifically Nortons and BMWs. Motorcycles are one of the hardest machines for him to make because he wants them to be accurate. He welds washers together in a stack to create a dual engine and creates the wheels by hand out of copper rods.

“It took me a long time to figure out that a bearing looks great on the front of a plane as an engine,” he said. But once he figures out what gadget works best, he doesn’t have to worry about it again.

“It took 30 years of experience to be able to create sculptures in not much time,” he said. His goal is not always to be exact, but to “make the junk look like it’s supposed to be there.”

Business isn’t as good this year, and he suspects the poor economy has something to do with it.

“This stuff doesn’t go bad,” he said “I don’t have to feed it. If I don’t sell it this week, I’ll sell it next week.”

The price for a sheet of copper has gone from $50 to $200 in the past 2-3 years, according to Abdelnour. And he’s running out of brass because no one supplies it in Maine and he usually gathers his supply from Florida, so he’ll have to improvise, have some shipped or travel to get it.

Though he has participated in many Florida art shows, Abdelnour has noticed that his sculptures are too expensive to attract many customers at Maine craft shows.

“I do shows in vacation places, so I’m exposed to all these people,” said Abdelnour, who has sold sculptures to politicians, prominent CEOs and public figures. “I’m not famous or anything. They don’t seek me out. I just happen to be there.”

He can’t nail down his customer base and says that he has people from 16 to 106 purchasing his work.

“I tickle somebody’s fancy because I do such different things,” he said, taking pride in the fact that he sells something that makes customers laugh.

He remembers an elderly Florida couple that bought a large, whimsical flying machine and asked him to deliver it to their home. The woman, in her 90s, asked him into the house to help them hang the sculpture.

After looking around the home for a good spot, she said, “I know where to hang it. I don’t have many days left. I want to hang it in the breakfast nook so I can start every day with a smile.”

Ernie’s Sculpture is located on Route 102 in Town Hill and can be reached at 288-5337.

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