Wild, whimsical work of Paul Eppling
Artist Paul Eppling has a whimsical eye for what most people would consider junk — and it shows itself in fantastical creations, large and small.
His 30-foot long piece “Security Lizard,” was hoisted onto the roof of a city-owned building in St. Petersburg, Fla., by a construction crane.
It took Eppling six months of full-time work to build the sculpture of the lizard, with its long tongue stretched out to nab a firefly. In a fitting twist, the firefly is also a spotlight that illuminates the city fleet maintenance garage below.
According to his wife, Sandy, who is also an artist, most of the materials Eppling uses are scraps from businesses — things like worn out auto parts, scrap from metal manufacturing and old machinery parts from auctions in Minnesota. He shapes some parts with heating and hammering, cutting and grinding.
He was recently honored for the large armadillos and dragons he created for the Boyd Hill Nature Preserve in St. Petersburg.
While some of his pieces are massive, others are much smaller, and are completed in a week or two. He donated the moose made of metal that watches over the duck pond on West Main Avenue in Frazee, but most of his pieces are in Florida.
Paul, who is 64, has had to slow down the pace of his work after being diagnosed with progressive supranuclear palsy, a rare variant of Parkinson’s disease. Loss of balance is the symptom that is giving him the most trouble now.
The Epplings live in St. Petersburg in the wintertime and near Frazee in the summertime.
“We live outside of Frazee on the family farm in the summers,” Sandy said. Her mother, Rose, was born on the Fischer family farm outside of Frazee, and her father, Bill Ebeltoft, was raised in Frazee.
The couple celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary this summer.
Sandy grew up in Minneapolis, and Paul was born in New Orleans. He lived in Chattanooga and Knoxville before moving to St. Petersburg for college.
He has lived there since he graduated from Florida Presbyterian College in 1971. He has art studios in both Minnesota and Florida.
“Paul was at college studying art, and had been doing painting and wood and clay sculpture,” Sandy said. “He saw a pile of metal while walking across campus, and was inspired by the shapes of the pieces to make his first sculpture, a rhinoceros, from car bumpers and other parts. He’s been doing found object sculpture ever since.”
He builds most of his pieces in the studio and moves them on-site.
“Neither of us can remember him building a piece on site,” Sandy said, “I guess it’s not practical because it’s noisy, dirty work — welding spatters, smoke, dust and metal fragments from grinding...”
The Security Lizard was commissioned to Eppling courtesy of an excellent City of St. Petersburg program that sets aside a percentage of the construction budget for new or remodeled buildings for artwork to be incorporated into the project.
The imposing piece also posed the greatest installation challenge for Eppling, who built it on city property near its final destination, and then arranged for it to be carried about a block by a large crane to its resting spot on the top of the city fleet maintenance building.
There were four reinforced pads built on the roof of the building and the four feet of the lizard had to match them so it could be welded into place.
“Paul and I both had other jobs up until the mid-1980s,” Sandy said, “but since then had been full time artists until his disease slowed him down. Fortunately, we saved for retirement, even though we didn’t really expect to retire from making art.”
The rise in metal prices in recent years cut both ways, Sandy said. “We had a big pile of scrap that we sold, but it cost a lot more for the stainless steel that Paul was working with the last few years.”
Eppling enjoys working with students, and Sandy said his favorite adventure with school kids was at Perkins Elementary, an arts magnet school in St. Petersburg.
The curriculum has emphasis on the arts, specifically dance, music, visual and Spanish language.
Eppling asked the kids to draw pictures of themselves doing things that relate to the arts. He chose six to eight pictures for each discipline, then he and the kids used an overhead projector to enlarge the images to the size he needed.
He then made stainless steel three-dimensional cutout replicas of the drawings, and made four mobiles that hang in the stairwells of the school, one for each discipline.
“Later they did a wall called ‘A day at Perkins,” Sandy said, “and one of the kids that was watching him install her drawing replica asked how long it would last. Paul said a long time, and she said ‘then I could bring my kids to see this when I’m grown up?’”
Eppling said that anyone can do what he does, “Just try to look at common objects differently and see what else they could be.”
Upon reflection, Paul said his favorite famous artist is Van Gogh, because of the colors and motion in his paintings.
But his first response was Robert Hodgell, his mentor, and one of his art professors at college. He chose him because he was able to do wonderful work in ceramics, painting, printmaking, and be a great teacher.
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