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  • 23 Sep 2014

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From junk to art

Photo Credit: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: DAVID ROZA - Artist Todd Samusson creates totemic masks and other sculptures out of materials he finds on beaches, roadsides and garage sales.  Social worker, toymaker, newspaper writer, carpenter, massage therapist, dishwasher, grant writer, musician. Name a job, Todd Samusson probably has done it before.

“I just can’t do the same thing for a long time,” says the 62-year-old, from the shaded patio of his front lawn in the Mount Tabor neighborhood of Southeast Portland. 

The son of an army engineer, Samusson grew up tinkering with his father’s tools and lived in Morocco, Virginia and Texas before settling in Portland with his wife, Paula Manley, in 1988.

Since moving to Portland, Samusson has added a new occupation to his résumé: garbage collector. And then he turns it into art. 

“I probably went to a hundred garage sales in the course of a five-year period. I just like the look of old things and rust,” Samusson says. 

It all started 15 years ago, when a piece of garbage caught Samusson’s eye one day while he was remodeling a nearby house. “There was a piece of junk, a metal flange like the type that comes out of vents,” he recounts. “I kept looking at it in the pile of debris every day and thinking ‘I’m going to take that home and do something with it.’ ” 

And then came Bob

After some hammering, flattening, bending and sewing, that metal flange became the mouth of Bob, a metal mask made of an oven pan, a tin can, a few copper pipes and two beaten-down pennies. And after Bob, the deluge.

Photo Credit: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - Todd Samusson fashioned this carillon of old brass bells, which he calls The Recyclaphone, for display in his eclectic yard, viewable at Southeast 50th and Madison Avenue in Portland.“It opened up a whole new world,” Samusson says. “You cut something at an angle and all of a sudden you look at it differently.”

Samusson started looking at a lot of things differently. 

Whether it was a dull saw blade tossed away by a road crew, an old, chucked-away section of railroad track, or even a massive hunk of driftwood “that could have been from anywhere — from the Olympic Peninsula down to California,” he says — any scrap of old matter had potential in the budding artist’s eyes. 

“I just drive by these things, and I think ‘I’ve got to do something with it!’ ” 

It started with just masks — strange combinations of wood, brass, and mix and match that vaguely resemble pagan idols or Easter Island heads. Samusson has whole shelves of them tucked away in his basement.

While he is inspired by indigenous art from Pacific Northwest tribes and from the Maori people of New Zealand, the main fun for Samusson is in the form.

“I mostly just like working with recycled stuff,” he says. “It’s not like a blank canvas; you are always reacting to what the damage is, and working around what you have on hand. Plus it’s usually cheaper, and I could never cut down a great big tree for art.”

Neighborhood water cooler

Masks in the basement were just the beginning. Samusson’s front lawn was what happened next. Walk by his 107-year-old house near the quiet intersection of Madison Street and 50th Avenue and you’ll find a rusted bicycle, a water tank, a stovepipe and a carillon of old brass bells (which he calls The Recyclophone) that sit atop an amalgamation of wooden planks and aluminum siding that circles the front lawn, patio and small vegetable garden within. 

“At first it was just this pressurized water tank which I found sitting in a trash pile while I was remodeling an architect’s office,” Samusson recalls. “I built this centerpiece outside for it, and it just got out of control over the years.” 

Samusson calls the artful fence his “semi-permeable boundary,” which neighbors can walk through, investigate and talk about. “Because of this fence the interaction level around here has gone up 100 percent,” he says. “People stop and talk to me and to each other because they see this. It’s one of the coolest things, and I did not plan for it.”

For Samusson, community interaction is the most sustainable aspect of his art.

“People stay in contact; they don’t just drift off into a flat-screen TV and never talk with their neighbors.”

While vandalism and theft is a concern for Samusson, he also has had to deal with the opposite problem: additions to the fence. “This showed up about a month ago,” he says, picking up a hunk of pumice on top of a post. “I don’t know who put it here. It looks good though!”

Some additions to the fence are encouraged, even curated.

The fence features The Mad/50 Gallery, a small glass case maintained by his wife, Paula, where art can be displayed. “It’s the smallest art gallery in town,” Samusson says. “But Paula has gotten thousands of dollars in grant money from the Regional Arts Council to have artists put their work here.”

Visual art is not the only way Samusson tries to unite his community. He also is a lifelong guitar player, singer and songwriter who has performed for activist groups like Amnesty International, Greenpeace and the National Organization of Men Against Sexism.

Samusson was first inspired to write when he went to a national conference of anti-nuclear power activists in the 1970s. “Everyone was in this big auditorium, and this one guy gets up on stage with a song about one of the soldiers who died of cancer after being exposed to the nuclear tests out in Nevada,” Samusson recalls. “It just completely blew the room away. The whole room was in tears. And I just remember thinking, ‘I want to be able to do that!’ ” 

Samusson has written songs about climate change, the recession and veterans suffering from PTSD. 

Ever since that conference, Samusson has thought of his music as service, as a way to contribute to the causes he plays for. “I want to keep people awake and thinking about stuff rather than just settling for the status quo,” he says. “I’ve played in front of a thousand people at Pioneer Courthouse Square, and I don’t know if I’ve made a difference.

“But neither did the guy who inspired me back in the 70s.”

While Samusson continues to write songs, make masks, build fences and even construct totem poles, his main focus is always sustainability. “I’m not kidding anybody. I know The Recyclophone’s just a bunch of junk hanging from a fence,” he says. “But when people see it in the context of this space, they stop and see that we need

places like this where they can grow their own food, grow their own ideas, and interact with their neighbors. That makes life at least a little bit more sustainable.”