"Did I ever tell you my Mad Max story?" asks Michael Ulman, a found objects sculptor from outside Boston. A gallery interested in representing Ulman told him to expect a call from a production crew; a few days later, George Miller, director of the Mad Max films, was on the line. When asked if he had ever heard of Mad Max, Ulman responded, 'What? Mad Max is my favorite movie EVER.'"
Ulman has trouble getting the words out to describe how the mysterious conference call led to a three month excursion to Australia where he decorated the inside and outside of hundreds of cars with found objects based on the movie's gang affiliation and the character. "They gave us a wad of cash and we'd go to junkyards to buy whatever we wanted...It was a dream job."
But you would never guess all this standing in Michael Ulman's suburban workshop housed in a building that has been home to a variety of factories over the last century. Ulman's father is also a found objects sculptor and they share the workshop/gallery. "I grew up in a house where there was a studio in the basement," says Ulman. "I'd be in my pajamas with those little feet and my dad would give me these giant work gloves. I'd hold parts for him to weld together. I'd be yelling, 'It's getting hot,' and he'd respond, 'Don't let go!'"
The close mentorship by his father throughout his childhood and a household full of artists has made a lasting impression on Ulman. While he initially experimented with making sculptures of animals, as they were instantly recognizable forms, motorcycles, his current subject, were always a source of passion. "My mom says that when she was pregnant with me she went on a friend's motorcycle," says Ulman, and the rest is history.
The beauty in Ulman's sculptural models of vehicles is that every piece existed in some former capacity. "I'm giving a part a new reason for being," says Ulman. "It had its mundane existence. That piece was a vacuum and it had one purpose: to suck up dirt...I can make [the pieces] so much happier. I imagine all the pieces are screaming, Pick me!"
Likewise, the process for assembling the sculptures is like solving a puzzle that only exists in Ulman's head. He is not fabricating parts from scratch, but rather he is adapting, cutting, and welding parts that are not supposed to fit together, an entirely different type of fabrication process. "It's not like half the work is done, says Ulman, "but half the work is done. I can just use my imagination and figure out where the pieces go. I think of it like a chess game and plan fifteen moves ahead."
The idea of the vehicle he wants to build comes first. The motor, though, is the true heart of the project and the frame of the vehicle is built up around the motor. He picks parts strategically, choosing lawnmower and bicycle pieces from junkyards for the frame, but also types search terms into eBay to see what pops up. Any vehicle is a potential project, whether plane or car, as long as there is room for a massive engine. But Ulman will not, for instance, simply make a dragster—he will make an "extreme version" of a dragster.
And the maxim that guides his designs, "God is in the details," comes straight from his father. The tiny gauges in the airplane, the little ignition key with the dice keychain, and the miniature copy of Easyriders magazine on the front car seat are all examples of the level of craftsmanship that separates Michael Ulman from other modelmakers, because Ulman's vehicles are truly real—well, except for the fact that they do not actually run.
Each of his creations takes years to complete, but that does not seem to be a deterrent. "It's always been found objects," says Ulman, "I can't think about not driving by a trash pile and getting out to look. It's a sickness." Luckily, Ulman has found a new market for his skills with Mad Max 4, albeit one dependent on the masses' appreciation for post-apocalyptic films. Even if that does not pan out, Ulman will still be hard at work in his fantastic studio, filled with the hearts and souls of thousands of former appliances, breathing new life into old machines.
Dave Seliger is a Postgrad Fellow in Logistics and Ext Affairs at the NYC Office of Emergency Management. He has extensive experience helping firefighters, police officers, and disaster responders improve their services through design.